The recognition of King Alfred (r. 871-899) of Wessex as one of the greatest kings of British history is a generally recent phenomenon. Make no mistake, despite the absence of “the Great,” Alfred was still seen by his immediate peers and successors as a skilled ruler, a powerful war leader and a wise administrator of his realm. After all, he was a very successful king. In 871, King Alfred found himself in possession of a kingdom on the verge of collapse. His lands were threatened by roving bands of Vikings who traveled from one British kingdom to another, killing or extorting protection money from the battered monarchs. Although his reign began shakily, Alfred eventually pushed multiple waves of Vikings out of his domain and achieved recognition as the leading king of the surviving Anglo-Saxon states that were threatened by the Vikings. By the end of his reign, Alfred had put in place an efficient system of defense against the still-present Viking threat and initiated an educational renaissance in his lands. Yet, in the centuries following his death, despite his contributions to the survival of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, Alfred was only considered as one good and effective king among a line of other exceptional kings—not yet a “great” king.
Alfred’s postmortem fame suffered from the successes of his family, both preceding his reign and following his death. Alfred’s grandfather, King Egbert (or Ecgbert, r. 802-839), was one of the top contenders that siphoned away Alfred’s fame. King Egbert was the one who originally put the Kingdom of Wessex on the path to greatness by making his kingdom the most influential power in the region of England, with most of his neighboring kingdoms either deferring to his will or being outright controlled by Wessex.
King Alfred, following the reigns of his father and brothers, succeeded in keeping Egbert’s hegemony over England intact, but he did not annihilate the Viking presence in Britain. Instead, Alfred ruled southern England and brought parts of Wales over to his side, while the Vikings were restricted to the Danelaw, a region carved out by the Scandinavians in the north and mid-east of England. Alfred’s fame was further chipped away by the successful reigns of his own son and grandson. Alfred’s grandson, King Æthelstan (r. 925-939), especially stole Alfred’s limelight by defeating the Norse-Celtic alliance and achieving the status of being the first king to bring all of England under his control. In short, Alfred’s greatness was often overlooked by medieval observers simply because the Kingdom of Wessex was in a golden age of competent kings during the 9th and early 10th centuries.
Nevertheless, King Alfred the Great eventually received his due. The earliest references to Alfred as “the Great” (that are known to this author) have been dated to the 15th century. Before this, Alfred had been treated with respect, often described as wise, magnanimous, or as a king of all the English/Anglo-Saxons. Unfortunately for Alfred, even when he was awarded the title of “the Great” in the late Middle Ages, it still was not in commonplace usage. Actually, Sir John Spelman is credited with popularizing the name, “Alfred the Great,” as a result of his work, Life of Alfred the Great, which was published postmortem in Latin (in 1678) and later in English, in 1709.
Interestingly, the very first biography written about King Alfred may have also played a role in the king’s late rise to greatness. A welsh monk, bishop and courtier of King Alfred, who went by the name of Asser, wrote the first known biography about an Anglo-Saxon king, which happened to be King Alfred. He is believed to have begun writing the piece around 893, eventually producing what is now known as Asser’s Life of King Alfred. As biographies go, it was not the best—with the utmost respect to Asser, the book was left unfinished, unedited, and critics would not be too imprecise to accuse the text of being poorly written. Asser, himself, likely knew the biography was not up to par, for it seems likely that he abandoned the project. Fifteen or sixteen unproductive years passed from the beginning of the biography in 893 to the death of Asser in 908 or 909. There is no evidence that Asser attempted to have his unfinished manuscript published on a large scale within England, not to mention dissemination of the work to other countries.
Ironically, either to Asser’s delight or horror, Asser’s Life of King Alfred is now considered to be one of the most important and valuable texts about King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon world in England. Although all of the few known original medieval copies of the text have been lost (the last burned in 1731), modern presses have kept the work alive, preserving great insight into the extraordinary life and character of King Alfred the Great.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Portrait of Alfred the Great by Samuel Woodforde (1763-1817), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.