The Best

Tom Shippey

  • Alfred the Great by David Sturdy
    Constable, 268 pp, £18.95, November 1995, ISBN 0 09 474280 4
  • King Alfred the Great by Alfred Smyth
    Oxford, 744 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 0 19 822989 5

Pre-Conquest England – England, that is, between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans – notoriously has no presence even in the educated popular mind. Its history is unknown except to specialists, not part of the school curriculum, regarded as part of the Dark Ages. Since everything began in 1066, the Hammer of the Scots can occupy all history books as ‘Edward the First’, his namesakes the Confessor and the Elder literally felt not to count – even though the latter’s mark may still be visible on the shire system of Central England. As for the Egberts and Oswigs and Cerdics, the incompetences of modern spelling have left them all unpronounceable, vaguely ludicrous.

To this general picture of neglect and oblivion there is one shining exception, Alfred, still always by convention ‘the Great’. There has even been a film about him, if one of no great success. Statues of him stand at Wantage and at Winchester. The 1100th anniversary of his arguably world-changing victory at Edington passed apparently without comment or memorial (with one exception – see below), but his impact on the last century was very great. The Victorian cult of Alfred was indeed so marked as to make Alf almost the typical English name. Victorian historians vied with each other to compose panegyrics to him. The biography written by Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, said that Alfred disproved once and for all the thesis that Christianity was ‘no faith for fighters’: while the Vikings at Ashdown passed the night before the battle singing the ‘Death-Song of Ragnar Lothbrok’, in the other camp ‘lay a youth who carried in his bosom the Psalms of David’. And he it was who charged up the hill next morning ‘like a wild boar’, in the words of Asser’s De Rebus Gestis Alfredi, to destroy the Viking jarls. Edward Freeman said flatly that Alfred was ‘the most perfect character in history’, more practical than Saint Louis, holier than George Washington, and kinder than Charlemagne or Edward I. To Alfred were routinely ascribed the beginnings of all the most characteristic and prestigious English institutions: Oxford University (though few can seriously have believed that), the Royal Navy, universal education, experimental science and by extension the Royal Society. Furthermore, by ‘burning the cakes’ he demonstrated what was felt to be the quintessential English virtue of tenacity, never knowing when you’re beat. The general assessment of Alfred, Ralph Davis remarked in 1971, sounded like the report every schoolboy would like to write about himself. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that his biography had been written by Thomas Hughes.

Surprisingly, there hasn’t been much change in this century. Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England, still the standard history, sticks to the notion of the Royal Navy stemming from Alfred. The slightest attempts at revisionism, from Davis or even from Stenton, have drawn determined or furious counters. And yet there is by Dark Age standards so much material available about Alfred, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the Life by Asser (or Pseudo-Asser as it may be), in the three books he is known to have translated himself and the others produced in his time and probably under his influence, in charters, laws and political documents and in his own will, that one might have expected at least a difference of opinion. And this, at least, David Sturdy and Alfred Smyth provide.

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