Denewlf was a contemporary of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (r. 879-899) and lived in an undisclosed forested region of Alfred’s kingdom. Although Denewlf was an incredibly bright fellow, he was far removed from any government or ecclesiastical officials who might recognize his potential. He came from a poor family and unfortunately had no access to education. Making do with what he had, Denewlf devoted himself to a herd of pigs and lived as a swineherd in his wooded homeland.
The life of Denewlf the Swineherd changed forever when he had a chance encounter with King Alfred the Great sometime between 871 and 878. As the story goes, Alfred and his forces entered the stretch of forest where Denewlf lived at a time when Viking raiders were making one of their many incursions into the territory of Wessex. While the king and his thanes were hiding from, or setting up an ambush for, the troublesome Vikings, they happened to stumble across Denewlf and his pigs. The sources are not clear on when exactly the meeting took place, but two years in particular are likely candidates. In 871, Alfred lost a battle against Vikings at Wilton, near the Wylye River. After that loss, Alfred resorted to guerrilla warfare for the rest of the year, until he could arrange a peace agreement with the Vikings. Otherwise, 878 was a probable time for a chance forest encounter. In that year, the Viking warlord Guthrum invaded Wessex and caught Alfred so off guard that the king had to flee to the marshes of Somerset with a small band of loyalists. From there, Alfred resumed his guerrilla tactics and rallied his forces to eventually defeat Guthrum before the end of the year.
Whichever year, 871, 878, or somewhere in between, Alfred and his warriors eventually found themselves at wherever Denewlf lived with his animals. What exactly happened when they first met is unclear—perhaps they conversed after realizing he was not a Viking, or maybe Alfred simply commandeered the poor man’s pigs to feed the war effort. Nevertheless, whatever the route to the conclusion, Alfred and Denewlf eventually had a conversation. While the two talked, Denewlf’s natural intelligence became apparent to Alfred. The king was able to look past the lack of wealth and the absence of education to see Denewlf as a pool of unrefined and untrained potential. Alfred could sympathize with the uneducated—he himself was reportedly unable to read his native language until he was twelve, and he would not be confident in translating Latin until 887. Perhaps seeing something of himself in the swineherd, Alfred saw to it that Denewlf received tutors. Denewlf apparently made near superhuman progress in his learning and was appointed bishop of Winchester in 879. The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester summarized the tale well:
“This man, if report may be trusted, was, during the early part of his life, not only illiterate but a swineherd. King Alfred, when yielding to the fury of his enemies he had taken refuge in a forest, chanced to light upon him as he was feeding his swine. Remarking his intelligence, the king caused him to be taught learning, and when he was sufficiently instructed made him bishop of Winchester; a thing that may almost be considered miraculous” (Florence of Worcester, AD 879).
Bishop Denewlf of Winchester ruled his bishopric for around three decades and outlived the king who raised him from the pigpen to the pulpit. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bishop Denewlf died in 909.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (painting by Eugène Burnand (1850-1921).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- 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.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.