Substantive Education

February 9, 2010

Alfred The Great 871-901 A.D.

The following is information that my students who are studying the Middle Ages need for review.  I’ve put it here instead of on our homework page in hopes that it will be interesting to others as well.  I will also be posting information this week about William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings, Henry the Fowler, and Canute.  Hope you enjoy the stroll back in time.

During the Middle Ages the English Coast was constantly being invaded and plundered by the Vikings and the Danes.  For a while, large portions of England were ruled by Danish Kings.  The Saxons were able to keep some of England for themselves due to the courage of the great Saxon King, Alfred.  Alfred was the fourth son of King Ethelwulf.  All of his older brothers names begin with Ethel…which means ‘noble birth’.  Being the fourth son it seemed unlikely that Alfred would inherit the throne and so his name does not contain the common prefix of ‘ethel’.

As a boy Alfred’s parents taught him and his brothers to read.  There were not many books at this time, partially due to the difficulty and expense of paying skilled scribes to copy books by hand onto parchment, but also  due to the frequent Viking raids that England endured.  The Vikings would frequently burn villages, churches, and monasteries destroying many of the books that were in England.  During this uncertain time ‘book learning’ gave way to the more practical skills associated with war.  Rarely did a stretch of time go by without an invasion.

Yet, Alfred’s mother sought to teach her sons.  The story is told that Alfred’s mother showed Alfred and his brothers a beautifully illustrated volume.  She told the boys that at the end of one week she would award the book to the boy who could read it the best.  Up to this point Alfred had struggled with reading, but upon seeing the book he applied himself to his studies.  His brothers, thinking he didn’t stand a chance, spent their days hunting, riding, and taunting Alfred.  At the end of the week it was Alfred who proved to be the best reader and won the book. A love of learning and emphasis on the importance of education will later become a hallmark of Alfred’s reign.

Alfred’s early life also included trips to Rome where he met the Pope and studied.  It was a long difficult journey.  Some accounts report that Alfred’s father had made a commitment to make the pilgrimage, but was not able to and sent Alfred in his stead.  At that time Alfred was anointed by the Pope, in later years biographers would claim this was an anointing to be King, but as he was just a young boy with many older brothers this is unlikely.

In various fights Alfred’s brothers were killed, and in 871, when Alfred was 22 years old, the Danes again invaded and Alfred’s brother, King Ethelred was killed.  Alfred was now king.  The Saxons continued to fight, but the Danes had taken the northern and eastern parts of England and were continuing their pirating of the English coast.  Due to this, and the constant state of alarm that his people were living with Alfred decided to meet the enemy before they could land.  He began to build and equip a navy.  In 875 he gained the first naval victory by the English.  (Is it just me, or is it odd that a nation on a small  island didn’t have a navy???)

This tree fungi is named 'Alfred's cakes" after this story.

The victory was not sufficient to hold off the Danes however and eventually they poured into Saxon lands and Alfred was forced to flee.  At this point a story is repeated about Alfred that demonstrates both his humility and his desperate situation.  He was forced to wander the countryside, finding work where he could.  He didn’t reveal that he was the king.  One account says that he was very hungry and entered the house of a farmer and his wife.  She was baking some cakes and told him to watch them and not let them burn while she went outside to care for the animals.  When she returned the cakes were burning.  Alfred had been lost in thought trying to think how he could save England and hadn’t noticed them.  The woman yelled at him, “You lazy, good for nothing.  You would have eaten the cakes but you couldn’t help make them.  Get out.”  He never told her who he was, and he left…still hungry.

As time passed some of Alfred’s friends discovered where he was and they began to join him.  They began to organize and build a fort.  One day he was out wandering the countryside singing and Guthrum, the commander of the Danes heard him.  He sent for the minstrel, not knowing his true identity and asked him to sing for him.  Alfred did, and when he left that day he had some payment for his songs, along with information he could use to attack.

A week later Alfred attacked the Danish forces and defeated them.  Alfred took Guthrum as his prisoner, and then took up the harp and played for him.  Guthrum was amazed that the wandering minstrel was the King.  Alfred then offered to let Guthrum and his men live if they would convert to Christianity, be baptized and be allies.  Guthrum agreed.

England was still split into a Danish kingdom and a Saxon kingdom, but years of peace and prosperity came after Alfred’s victory.  With some relief from invaders Alfred looked to building up his kingdom so that it would be safe from attacks.  He immediately began building and fortifying a system of forts throughout his kingdom that were roughly one days ride apart.  In this way, if any part of the kingdom were attacked reinforcements could arrive swiftly.  He also rebuilt the Roman roads and constructed other roads that increased travel and commerce.  In a new move, Alfred decided to have a standing, mobile army.  At that time soldiers were only called up for service when they were needed, in times of peace they saw to their own lands and wealth.  Having a standing army meant that Alfred was always ready to repel an invasion.

Alfred also created a Royal navy.  The ships that he built were larger than those used by the Vikings and were modeled after the warships of Rome.  The ships were made to be tied to the boat being attacked so that they could board the vessel and fight.  Unfortunately, this created some problems, most battles were fought in rivers and estuaries and the large ships were to easily stuck in mud when the tide went out.

There also appears to have been an extensive beacon system that was instituted so that messages could be communicated rapidly from one fort to another.  I’m picturing something along the lines of the beacons used in the Lord of the Rings…but I don’t really know if it was like that.  Regardless, with the improved roads and regularly spaced forts communication was greatly increased, giving the Saxon’s a greater measure of security.

The King’s thought and planning paid off when the Vikings tried to attack.  The Vikings depended on surprise and mobility to come in quickly and gain the upper hand.  With all of Alfred’s changes this was no longer possible, it was to easy for the Saxons to respond to threats swiftly, even on the sea before the Vikings hit land.

Alfred also reformed the justice system.  He is sometimes credited with creating many new laws.  It would be more accurate to say that he collected all of the laws into a book and saw that they were enforced.  He insisted that all the judges in his realm be literate so that they could study and possess wisdom.  This was not an easy feat to accomplish as education had suffer-

Copy of Alfred's translation of Pastoral Care.

ed greatly during the years of invasion by the Danes and Vikings.  To be sure his judges were fair and doing their jobs Alfred would  frequently review their decisions.

The first fifth of the book of laws that was complied was an introduction written by Alfred.  In it he makes the case for the value of having Christian law and quotes Exodus and the book of Acts.  He traces the history of God’s law given to Moses through history to the development of the laws that the Saxons would have.  He divided the book into 120 chapters to reinforce this connection to God’s laws.  In Medieval exegesis numbers were symbolically important.  120 was the number for ‘law’ because the great ‘law giver’ Moses was 120 when he died.

Following the reasoning presented in Alfred’s introduction he also emphasized  that the king of a nation had been placed there by God and his subjects were doing their Christian duty by being loyal subjects.  This was not a case of using religion to manipulate his subjects.  The idea that God had entrusted him with the spiritual as well as physical well-being of his subjects was an intrinsic part of his worldview.  He felt that if the Christian faith fell into ruin in his kingdom, either because he was indifferent or because there were too few clergy who were educated, he would be held responsible by God.  He had examples of Kings in the Old Testament who did not protect their people, or their people’s spiritual health, and God judged them.

This led to another set of reforms…educational reforms.  Albert knew that without educated judges, priests, and other leaders his country would suffer.  He was concerned that the monasteries were empty and the clergy too ignorant to understand the Latin words they spoke in their liturgies.  He established court schools where his children, the sons of nobles, and those common children who showed an aptitude could receive an education.  Alfred made a list of books that ‘all men should know’ and he had all of the manuscripts translated into their language.  He brought in scholars from other parts of the world to teach in his school.  He believed that without Christian wisdom there could be no prosperity or success, and that wisdom would be gained through education.

“Therefore he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.” (Alfred the Great)

He translated Pope Gregor’s work, Pastoral Care, and provided a copy to each of his Bishops for their study.  He also created beautiful pointers that

Alfred's jewel

were used to follow the line that was being read on the parchment.  One of these has been found and is referred to as Alfred’s jewel, as there is an inscription on it that says it was made by order of Alfred.  Alfred also worked on a book of his own when he had free time…which couldn’t have been often.

Alfred’s military, judicial, and educational reforms were all intertwined.  Restoring religion and learning was as instrumental in the defense of Saxony as building forts.  In Alfred’s preface to the English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care he comments that if kings fail to obey their divine duty to promote learning they can expect earthly punishments to befall them, and their people.  He assured his readers that wisdom was the surest path to power.  “Study Wisdom, then, and when you have learned it, condemn it not, for I tell you that by its means you may without fail attain to power, yes, even though not desiring it.”  (Alfred the Great)

After his death Alfred was made a saint by both the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church.  In an aside that I find very important…his Feast Day is Oct. 26th.  (My birthday).  He is now known to the English as Alfred the Great, and during difficult times people remembered his reign as one of peace ruled by a wise and just king.



  1. […] we covered in class.  Just a reminder – There is additional information in the article on Alfred the Great, so be sure to read that one through on the […]

    Pingback by Additional Middle Ages Readings « Substantive Education — February 9, 2010 @ 5:22 am | Reply

  2. […] Alfred the Great […]

    Pingback by Study list for the Middle Ages « Substantive Education — February 25, 2010 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: