Certainly when he was born, around a. d. 848, he didn’t look like probable material for history or fiction: he was the slight, intellectual fourth son of Athelwolf, king of Wessex (a vast territory comprising Sussex, Essex, and Kent, but not all of England – great tracts of which were under the control of Vikings) – and his three older brothers, Athelbald, Athelbert, and Athelred, had every intention of ruling the land. And all three of them did rule, in succession, after Athelwolf abdicated – but the ruling wasn’t easy, thanks to a redoubtable old bastard named Ragnar Lodbrok, a fire-breathing Viking of the worst stripe, upon whose death his sons, Halfdan and Ivarr, became so enraged they half-formulated a plan to reduce all of England to a Viking vassal-state (Ivarr might have been stirred by an unfortunate nickname that followed him the whole of his life; Halfdan was just your standard-issue homicidal maniac).
The main thing standing in their way was Wessex, and the sons of Athelwolf.
Archaeologists have spent a lot of time and energy trying to determine the exact numbers of men and ships involved, but it’s safe to say the Viking forces looked overwhelming – just as it’s safe to ascribe courage and determination to Athelbald, Athelbert – and most especially Athelred, who had two distinctions his older brothers didn’t share: he was personally ferocious in physical combat, and he’d lately learned (to his surprise, in the manner of brusque older brothers) that Alfred was not a pampered kid anymore but a stalwart fighter with a first-class tactical mind.
He’d come by these gifts naturally. In addition to doing his fare share of the fighting in his brothers’ endless wars with the Vikings, he’d also accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome and en route encountered the cultured Frankish court of Charles the Bald. He’d seen a larger world, one in which learning and gentle repose featured more prominently than drinking and fighting, and it answered something in his own studious, expansive mind. In short, he was deeper than his brothers, and Athelred recognized this, at least a little.
He didn’t have time to recognize it much more, because in 871 at the battle of Meredune he was mortally wounded (“mortally” for the time, that is – he took a great axe-gash and then spent weeks slowly dying of infection, in agony) and the trouble kingdom of Wessex passed to Alfred, who was in his early 20s. He had a slight but shapely frame, a beautiful face, sad eyes, steady hands, and strong arms – and he was up against the greatest warrior-culture west of the Mongols.
His rule got off to a rocky start in a series of pitched battles with the Vikings, at the culmination of which Alfred decided to pay them a lump-sum of money to leave his kingdom in peace for a while. They withdrew north of the Thames, and Alfred had a little time to rebuild his forces – and begin work on a navy, which he hoped to use to carry the fight to the Vikings on their own mastered element.
In 876 the Viking leader Guthrum (see under: homicidal maniac) broke the peace and attacked south – only to learn that Alfred had been steadily reinforcing both his defenses and the discipline of his men: the Danes were repulsed both on land and in a sea encounter, and Alfred bought himself a little more time.
He almost lost it all in 878, when luck and good timing (not to mention some pent-up homicidal anger) brought the Vikings to within an inch of wiping out the English completely. A surprise raid on Chippenham succeeded completely, seizing the royal court and driving Alfred and his followers into a hastily-scrambled exile for their lives. Here it was that Alfred’s preparations – his plans – proved their worth even when the man himself wasn’t on hand to enact them (it’s safe to say that 878 would have destroyed any of his brothers); well-trained forces on land and in the Bristol Channel held the line and then turned the Vikings back, culminating in the battle of Ethandune, in which Alfred delivered the Danes a defeat more decisive than anything they’d encountered before. They sued for peace, and as a neat little added gesture, Guthrun converted to Christianity and got baptized.
This is glorious stuff but hardly illustrative; that the kingdom of Wessex would want to survive rather than become subsumed into the Viking hoardings is only natural, and it’s natural the kings of Wessex would fight. It’s what such kings do in peacetime that works better to define them, and for the next eight years, Alfred had peace. What he did with that time is why later ages started calling him Great.
Because he hadn’t forgotten the Franks, and he hadn’t stopped wanting to live in a better world, even while he was running for his life in the fens of Somerset. So when he had a decade (give or take the odd Viking raid) of peace, he grabbed at it: he retrenched the fortifications of Wessex with intelligence and redundancy, he poured money and know-how into building fleets of ships (like Samuel Pepys long after him, he’s considered one of the fathers of the British navy), he revamped the administration of the kingdom, streamlined the bribery, recodified the laws and retrained the adjudicators of those laws, mandated literacy, spread the culture of books and learning, and in short went about creating that better world where he wanted to live. He was helped in much of this by a semi-shadowy figure, the Merlin to his Arthur, a canny Welsh monk named Asser who advised the king on a wide variety of matters and was his guiding light in the realm of books and learning. Alfred did some original writing of his own and some translations (including, famously, of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy), and Asser was instrumental in all of it.
His Life of King Alfred was written in 893, and it’s an immensely readable book even now, a thousand years later. Asser was at the king’s side quite often during this decade of peace and building – which might ordinarily have abetted in the creation of a sycophantic concoction of flatteries, except that Alfred himself had no real use for such things. He favored gentle usage – as all kings do – but he comes across in Asser’s book as quite charmingly human. There are dozens of passages like this one, in which we find the two reading together:
One day when we were sitting together in the royal chamber discussing all sorts of topics (as we normally did), it happened that I was reading aloud some passage to him from a certain book. As he was listening intently to this (with both ears, as it were) and was carefully pondering it over in the depths of his mind, he suddenly showed me a little book which he carried everywhere, in which were written dates, some psalms, certain prayers he’d learned in his youth, scraps of many things. He told me to copy our passage into the little book.
(Asser pauses to give thanks – then and now – for a king so in love with learning – but then he finds that Alfred has so assiduously filled his commonplace book that there’s no room left; Asser diplomatically suggests they start a new book)
You very much get the impression that Alfred brought all his enthusiasm, all his energy, to this surprise job of being king – and that his energies were far greater and far sharper than those of his brothers would have been. Of course, some of his subjects doubtless would have preferred a less intelligent king, or at least a less involved one, as Asser paints the picture of the newly reorganized legal system:
King Alfred also used to sit in judicial hearings for the benefit of both his nobles and the common folk, since they frequently and violently disagreed amongst themselves at the assemblies of their ealdormen and reeves, to the point where they could agree on virtually nothing. Under pressure of this obstinacy, both parties could agree to submit to the king’s judgement, and after a while both parties quickly started doing this. But if somebody for some reason expected that injustice would be dealt him by such an authority, he wouldn’t willingly submit to it, although the law forced him to be present, even if he didn’t want to be. For such men knew their malice could not long remain hidden – which is hardly surprising, since the king was an extremely astute investigator in judicial matters (as in so much else). He would carefully examine virtually all the judgements made in his absence anywhere in his realm, weighing their justice, and if he detected any corruption, he would ask the judges, politely of course (as was his way), either in person or by proxy, why they had passed such a seeming unfair sentence.
Needless to say, a story as good as Alfred’s couldn’t possibly have been ignored by history – he’s been embraced by yarn-spinners since the moment Gudrun bit into his first Communion wafer. Countless books have been written about him – poems, songs, ballads, operas, biographies, military histories, and of course novels … all have flowed from the presses, and each has created an Alfred subtly tailored to their own purposes. In 1961 the great historical novelist Alfred Duggan wrote The Right Line of Cerdic (although all of Duggan’s books are brilliant, all of them have absolutely crappy titles), an engrossing and stirring novel about Alfred; in 2006 David Horspool did a great, quick job of delineating the various myths that have adhered for centuries to Alfred’s stories; Paul Hill’s military study is new and invigorating; and of course there’s popular contemporary historical novelist Bernard Cornwell, who’s got an ongoing series of novels going on the story of Alfred.
These and lots more, and they all have their separate appeals – although Asser’s little book still beats them all for sheer interest. There’s a very good modern edition by Penguin Classics, of course.