Alfred the Great 
by David Sturdy.
Constable, 268 pp., £18.95, November 1995, 0 09 474280 4
Show More
King Alfred the Great 
by Alfred Smyth.
Oxford, 744 pp., £25, November 1995, 0 19 822989 5
Show More
Show More

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.

Sturdy’s Alfred the Great can be summed up relatively briefly. Its author has been a keeper of collections at the Ashmolean, a lecturer in medieval archaeology, and the archivist of University College, Oxford. The strength of his book lies in the attention paid to charters, and in his sometimes alarming knowledge of what happens in archives: as archivist of University College, Sturdy remarks that he found the copperplates of Obadiah Walker’s Latin translation of Spelman’s Life of Alfred ‘mouldering on the floor’, along with Walker’s page-proofs, abandoned when he fled Oxford in 1688. Against that it has to be said that Sturdy seems in some ways not to take his subject seriously. He is, for example, much given to flip or would-be worldly dismissals. Experts have found fault with the language and handwriting of one charter – ‘which are good reasons to believe it original’; no aldermen sign another one, which might look suspicious, but perhaps they ‘took the day off hunting’; scribes are almost routinely dismissed as feckless, senile or drunk. At the same time Sturdy is committed to several theses for which there is no evidence at all. He keeps on saying as if it were an established fact that the Chronicle is based on ‘epic poems, now long forgotten’, on ‘oral literature’, on ‘an endless series’ of Viking ‘traditional epics’. Even more weirdly, he is convinced that sections of the Chronicle are based on the words of a Viking chief who changed sides, but could give ‘detailed epic versions of his fighting, rape and pillage’. The Chronicle in fact takes no interest in rape. Sturdy’s phrasing gives almost a comic-book view of the period. And while his further thesis that none of Alfred’s wars mattered very much anyway (the two sides, he says, were so similar that the peasants of England ‘may hardly have noticed the difference’ between them) is at least revisionist and anti-mythical, it ignores or brushes aside serious questions of language and religion. For a balanced view, you would almost do better with Thomas Hughes.

Alfred Smyth’s King Alfred the Great may be highly contentious but it is a formidable work. At this point a confession of interest has to be made. The most original feature of the book is Smyth’s dismissal, as a later forgery, of Asser’s Life, on which all earlier biographies have rested: take it away and you have a very different picture. In 1978, however, Penguin Classics promoted a competition for best suggestion for a new translation of a foreign text – which I won with the declaration that in the year 1978 (the 1100th anniversary of Edington) Penguin Classics had no choice at all but to translate Asser’s Life of Alfred, written in a foreign language (Latin), by a foreigner (Asser was Welsh), but about the English king but for whom we would all be speaking Danish. Penguin yielded to the force of this argument, and honourably kept their bargain by producing in 1983 the Keynes and Lapidge translation.

This puts me on the other side from Smyth. Yet it is impossible to resist his earlier thesis – set out in Scandinavian York and Dublin and Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles – that modern historians up to and including Stenton have been much too ready to accept that the West Saxon unification and re-Christianisation of England in the tenth century was destined, successful, part of the logic of history. By contrast, Smyth shows, the tenth century was taken up with the hard struggle between the descendants of Alfred and their equally successful rivals the descendants of Ragnar Lothbrok (or Hairy-Breeks) himself, Kings of York and Dublin. Historians have been quite ready to accept the Chronicle’s, panegyric on the battle of Brunanburh as signalling ‘dramatic success’, while Smyth dwells on the fact that the enemy returned three years later and got the North Midland shires back, which was exactly what they wanted. Where Stenton remarked (almost gullibly) that the Chronicle’s 942 poem, ‘The Redemption of the Five Boroughs’, brings out ‘the highly significant fact that the Danes of eastern Mercia ... had come to regard themselves as the rightful subjects of the English king’, Smyth points out that that was exactly what the English Kings wanted people to believe, but that the Scandinavians, whether Danes or Norse, kept failing to follow the script. With his awareness of Irish, Norse and Northumbrian perspectives (all alien to generations of Oxbridge and London scholars), Smyth has always provided a welcome challenge to Establishment history: and so in spite of the issue of Asser, a balanced appraisal may remain possible.

Certainly Smyth approaches his task in a spirit of deep antagonism. The last major denial of Asser’s authenticity came from V.H. Galbraith in 1964, to be answered by Dorothy Whitelock three years later, and later by Keynes and Lapidge (who said all but directly that they regarded this as so much flogging of a dead horse). Sturdy as usual presents a grossly simplified view of all this, with Galbraith as a mad professor put in his place by serious scholarship. By contrast Smyth points to the age of the ‘received view’ on Alfred and on Asser; remarks crushingly that it is ‘an extraordinary comment on the state of Anglo-Saxon studies’ that we are still reliant on century-old editions; cites Cyril Hart (a family doctor) as an example of what has been achieved by ‘those few able scholars who work outside the networks of patronage which have come to control the subject in England’; and deals with the Galbraith/Whitelock debate by declaring that ‘in spite of the complacent obsequies held for Galbraith’s scholarship in 1983’ – i.e. Keynes and Lapidge – ‘the spirit of historical enquiry in Anglo-Saxon Studies has not been entirely extinguished.’ The tone is very much that of Geoffrey Howe summing up on Margaret Thatcher.

Smyth’s utterly convincing points ought to be put first. As part of his rejection of the ‘neurotic king’ thesis based entirely on Asser, he points out how underrated the Viking threat has increasingly become. It is now taken as axiomatic that Viking armies were pretty small, the accounts of chroniclers exaggerated. As Smyth says, English, Frankish and Irish chroniclers were all quite capable of distinguishing small armies, so if they distinguish large ones, and especially if they agree independently, one must begin by believing them. For instance, Peter Sawyer’s calculation of manpower by number of horses transportable founders on the fact that a minimum number of men are needed even to crew a horse-transporter. As for the nature of Viking armies, Smyth comments drily that too many scholars seem to have forgotten that ‘ninth-century Northmen were as yet unaware of the terms of the Geneva Convention.’ He cites a passage from an Irish chronicle in which the King of Tara sends ambassadors to a camp of Danes who have just defeated their enemies the Norwegians. The Danes were cooking, supporting their cauldrons on corpses, with their spits stuck into Norwegian bodies so that the fire burned them and ‘they belched forth from their stomachs the flesh and fat which they had eaten the night before.’ When the ambassadors said this was rather savage, the Danes replied: ‘This is the way they would like to have had us.’ It could be a horror story, but it has plenty of corroboration.

Smyth is surely right, too, to approach the Alfredian sections of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sceptically, as an ‘official record’ composed by ‘someone close to the very heart of government’, and accordingly with an Alfredian agenda which must be allowed for. Alfred’s career, after all, had dark shadows in it. He was the youngest of five brothers, and the other four produced at least three sons, one of whom may have been close to him in age. Nothing is known of the fate of that one, but when Alfred died, one of the others, clearly and for all we know justifiably, offended by his exclusion from the throne by Alfred’s son Edward, changed sides and joined the Vikings, to be killed fighting for his rights a few years later. The Chronicle blackens his character with a tale of nun abduction; keeps the limelight off Edward (a great commander in his own right) as long as his father was alive; and retrospectively runs down Alfred’s elder brothers, adding a strange (indeed impossible) tale of how Pope Leo recognised the young Alfred’s future glory by ‘hallowing him as king’ at the age of about four. All this looks almost like guilt, a view taken further by analysis of Alfred’s strangely protesting will.

Smyth digs further into issues of national self-respect which may still seem painful. The Chronicle line is that Wessex policy was never to pay Danegeld but rather to fight every time. Other kingdoms might knuckle under – Mercia, for example, ruled according to the Chronicle’s scornful 874 entry by Ceolwulf, a ‘foolish king’s thane’, promised to give its support to the Viking conquerors ‘any day that they wished to have it’ – but not Wessex. Why then, Smyth asks, did Ceolwulf and Alfred share a coinage? Was their status so very different? Did Alfred not get his silver from the Danes? Was he in fact not just another ‘Danish sub-king’, who paid ransom in 871 and may have done so repeatedly? Twenty-five years later, when the Chronicle was being compiled, the story was rewritten for defiant independence, but by then things looked very different.

Because, Thomas Hughes would tell us, of Edington, that great combination of English persistence, decisive success in battle, and at the end, the Nelson touch – the magnanimity in not pressing victory which led to the baptism of the Viking King Guthrum, the treaty of Wedmore, and (fairly) lasting peace. Smyth looks askance at all this too. No one, of course, believes in the cake-burning scene any more – it isn’t even in Asser – but Smyth is sceptical also about the flight to Athelney: a typical case, in his view, of making success look more dramatic by exaggerating previous hardship. He thinks the battle at Edington may have been just ‘a skirmish’ with ‘a Danish foraging party’. As for letting Guthrum off magnanimously, he thinks that is utterly inconceivable: if Alfred did a deal with the Vikings it was because he had to, because his position was weaker than the Chronicle will confess. Alfred was in fact paying Danegeld yet again.

By this time one may begin to wonder, not about the obvious reluctance of all commentators to contemplate ‘disgrace to the national escutcheon’, but about Smyth’s refusal to acknowledge both the unexpected nature of what the Chronicle sometimes says, and the fact that the unexpected can be true. Sometimes he shows an evident parti pris. Danish movements are followed very carefully by the Chronicler from 893 to 896, each annal ending with the statement: ‘That was twelve months/two years/three years after they came here across the sea.’ In the fourth year the Vikings quit and go elsewhere. Why? Danegeld again, says Smyth. It’s another ‘cover-up’, signalled by the fact that the Chronicler, after all his detailed recording of Danish movements, ‘would have us believe that everything which he had already described was of little consequence’. That is not a fair summary. The Chronicle offers no theory about why the Danes quit, but the implication of its story is obvious: they weren’t losing, but they weren’t winning either, and they certainly weren’t making a profit. And as for it all being ‘of little consequence’, what the Chronicle says (in Smyth’s translation) is: ‘the army had not on the whole afflicted the English people very greatly.’ I would say, ‘had not done the English people altogether too much damage’, but either way the (admirably judicious) point that’s being made is not that the Danes were of little consequence, but that things might have been worse. The Chronicle has not earned historians’ respect for no reason. Detecting an agenda in it is one thing, holding it up to ridicule is another.

One may well feel the same way about the much thornier issue of Asser. Asser is solely responsible for many of the most familiar images of Alfred: the birth in Wantage; the young child who can’t read but who admires his mother’s poetry book so much that he memorises it and scoops the prize; the measured candles for allocating time; the succession of diseases – piles in youth (prayed for to prevent him committing unchastity), exchanged (on his wedding day!) for some other terrifying but nameless and less incapacitating disease; the illiterate who translated Boethius; the strange story Asser injects to explain that West Saxons have no queens because of Eadburh, the wicked queen turned Italian beggarwoman. Smyth attacks much of this with considerable, but not total, success, and once again tends to weaken his own case by manipulating the case against. The Eadburh story does strain at dates, it’s true, but Asser says nothing about the young Alfred having met her, only that he himself had met men who had seen her, maybe men older than Alfred was. The book-prize story looks weak as well (which brothers could have been there for the young Alfred to compete with, and when did it happen, since his mother died when he was eight at the very most?). Just the same, it is not a simple folk-tale motif, as Smyth claims, nor is it a monastic story about a scholar-king: in fact it is a strange story to make up about a king long remembered for having written books. As for the birth in Wantage, everyone has noted that Wantage (in Berkshire) was not in Wessex, and is therefore an odd place for a Wessex king to send his wife to give birth. Odd things happen, though. Wantage is well away from the coast and therefore (pace Smyth) may have seemed safe. It does look as if Alfred and his brothers could in their maturity count on very loyal support from the alderman of Berkshire, Athelwulf, killed in 871. Maybe Alfred’s eventual South Mercia takeover had deep roots in some local sentiment (his utterly successful ‘Mercian policy’ remains unplumbed). And after all, why would a forger risk such a statement when he could just have had the future king born entirely plausibly in Winchester? One reason for writing things contrary to common sense is that they’re known at the time to be true.

And then there is the issue of neurotic illness, which seems in particular to motivate Smyth’s growing impatience with the whole Asser Life. Asser’s account is indeed badly told, almost in reverse chronological order. But it is not internally inconsistent. It is also a most surprising story to tell of a king recorded even by Asser (stretching it) as ‘a great warrior and victorious in virtually all battles’. Could such a king, Smyth asks, beset by ‘obsessive fears and depressions’, ever have ‘mustered the nervous energy’ to deal with crisis after crisis, and would the embattled West Saxon witan have entrusted the kingship to a ‘depressive invalid’? The answer, he says, must be ‘a resounding no’. Well, what about Nelson? Would a sensible Admiralty trust the fleet to a man with one arm, one eye, and a reputation for highly quixotic behaviour? Or a sensible US President entrust armies to Grant the binger or Sherman the genuine depressive? But they did. Smyth shows an increasing tendency not to probe Asser’s motives or look for betraying anachronisms, but just to brush it all aside as self-evidently silly (which it is only by ‘sensible’ modern standards). At Ashdown, Asser says, Alfred charged alone because his brother King Ethelred was hearing Mass and wouldn’t leave till it was over: ‘utterly fantastic,’ says Smyth. No, superstitious, incompetent – and highly flattering to Alfred. But none of this is incompatible with a ninth-century date.

Smyth has raised some vital questions about Asser, of which the most penetrating is: why does Asser start continuous Alfredian narrative exactly where the Chronicle does in 868? He also offers a much more convincing alternative context for composition than Galbraith did, round the year 1000 in close context with works produced at Ramsey Abbey like the Life of St Ecgwine and Byrhtferth’s Manual. All this will have to be looked at, as will the assertion that the whole work is indebted to the secular Life of Gerald of Aurillac. And it is certainly true that without Asser, Alfred would look very different, in a way more normal as a Dark Age king, though (once the tales of his doubtful literacy have been removed) more abnormal in his scholarly urges. I do not think Smyth is successful in his analyses of Alfred’s own works (‘studied’ and ‘bookish’ are not terms I would use, and I think he was a dictater, not a writer); but then that is largely because, as Smyth says, we still have no modern editions even of Alfred’s remarkable and cross-grained Boethius – an appalling gap. Smyth’s is an admirable book, the most exciting to appear in this field for many years. In the circumstances even its marring impatience finds many excuses. And the odd thing is that in the end even Smyth cannot find it in his heart to change the Victorian verdict on the King.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences