England's 'King for All Free Men'
Why this 9th-century monarch is the only king the British dubbed 'Great'
King Alfred the Great
By Alfred P. Smyth
Oxford University Press,
744 pp., $35
For six centuries, from the sacking of Rome in 410 until the Norman Conquest in 1066, the history of England lies shrouded in obscurity. The few documents, poems, and prose from this period are but an unreliable flicker of illumination in the long night of barbarism.
We do know that after the legions were recalled to defend Rome, the Britons sought aid from miscellaneous European mercenaries, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Franks, for defense against the savage Picts and Celts. Inevitably, the mercenaries soon overthrew their civilized British masters and made themselves rulers of the island.
By the eighth century, the Anglo-Saxons were themselves menaced by a new invasion from Northern Europe. Sea-borne Vikings, not content with the riches to be gained through piracy and raiding, landed a "Great Army" on the shores of East Anglia in the autumn of 865. From this foothold, they swept out north and west, and soon held most of Britain under their dominion, except for Wessex and its young King Alfred.
In this darkest hour, Alfred sent word to all free men who could bear arms to muster at Ecgberht's Stone, in the seventh week after Easter in 878. Alfred's army met the whole of the Danish war-band at Edington, and put it to flight. This decisive victory was crowned by the surrender and conversion to Christianity of the Danish leader Guthrum.
Until Alfred's death in 899, his sway held back the Danish onslaught. In the respite gained by his military victories, Alfred gathered about him a group of classically trained scholars. Together, they undertook to gather historical material (compiled as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) and to translate the works of Boethius, St. Augustine, and other writers of antiquity. Alfred himself freely translated and adapted Boethius's "Consolation of Philosophy" from the original Latin into Anglo-Saxon.
This then is the king called "Alfred the Great," the only English monarch to be so called. Alfred P. Smyth, professor of medieval history at the University of Kent, has spent the past 20 years immersed in the documentary evidence that remains from Alfred's time. His comprehensive biography of the Anglo-Saxon monarch is the first major study of Alfred's life published since 1902.
The author has reevaluated the available materials and comes to a number of conclusions about Alfred and his reign that sharply contradict earlier studies.
Primary among these is Smyth's repudiation of the medieval biography of Alfred, supposedly by Bishop Asser, the king's chaplain, as a "thousand-year-old forgery." Generations of scholars since Matthew Parker in 1574 have accepted "The Life of King Alfred" as genuine.
Much that was believed true about Alfred, as for example that he was illiterate until the age of 40, comes from this work. Smyth found no evidence at all for this conclusion and much that would suggest that the purported biography was actually written about a century after Alfred's death.
Unfortunately, in the service of that goal much has been sacrificed, in particular, a straightforward story. Alfred was a fascinating, complex, and interesting monarch, who lived at a time of great significance for the history of the English people. There is a great need for a well-informed and readable account of his life for the non-specialist. This volume, however, written as a series of topical essays rather than a sustained narrative, is not a book for the casual reader.
*Frederick Pratter is a freelance writer in Hull, Mass.