What did he think he was?

Tom Shippey

  • Ælfred’s Britain: War and Peace in the Viking Age by Max Adams
    Head of Zeus, 509 pp, £9.99, May 2018, ISBN 978 1 78408 031 0

The two words of Max Adams’s title are in a way antithetical. Alfred is the only English king to be referred to regularly as ‘the Great’, and once upon a time the reason was well known to everyone.[*] It was because, early in the year 878, hiding out incognito in a peasant’s hut in the Somerset Levels, he ‘burned the cakes’. Some 12 years before, Anglo-Saxon England had been invaded by a Viking army, and in quick succession the Vikings conquered three of the four major English kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia or ‘the March’, the last of which covered most of the English Midlands from the Humber to the Thames. They killed the kings of the first two and Burgred, King of Mercia, fled ignominiously to Rome. Only Wessex was left as a functioning kingdom, and its king was Alfred, the youngest of five sons and the only adult male survivor of his dynasty. Kill him, and it would be game over for Anglo-Saxon England.

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[*] Adams consistently and praiseworthily uses Anglo-Saxon digraphs and letters in names like Ælfred, Æðelred, Eadweard etc. In the interests of name recognition I have used the modern, if inconsistent forms.