King Alfred the Great

Aflred found learning dead and he restored it, education neglected and he revived it, the laws powerless and he gave them force, the church debased and he raised it, the land ravaged by a fearful enemy from which he delivered it. Alfred’s name shall live as long as mankind shall respect the past. 

This statement is inscripted on a statue of King Alfred in Wantage England.

England has produced a long list of kings who have accomplished extraordinary achievements, but there is only one of them who has earned the sobriquet—“the Great,” and that is King Alfred. Born in the late 840s AD, Alfred ruled the kingdom of Wessex until his death in 899. The record of his reign over the British Island serves as a testimony to his brilliance as a warrior, scholar, law-giver, architect of towns and ships, and to his zeal for God. There is much the Christian church can learn from Alfred’s life. His legacy is both a challenge and encouragement for all Christians to press the crown rights of Jesus in every nook and cranny of society. 

Alfred’s Christian heritage 

Alfred’s heritage was immersed in the Christian religion. In the sixth century Gregory the Great sent Augustine of Canterbury (also known as “the Apostle to the English”) on a mission to evangelize King Æthelberht as well as his Kingdom of Kent. Æthelberht eventually converted and allowed Christian missionaries to preach freely. Augustine evangelized many of the king’s subjects and was given land to build a monastery. 

After the initial success of Augustine’s mission, Gregory sent more missionaries to Britain around the early seventh century. Lindisfarne island was made famous during the later half of the seventh century because of the popular bishops Aiden and Cuthbert. Their lives of austere piety had become examples of Christian living which nurtured the faith of Anglo-Saxon England. By the time Alfred was born the English isles had become predominantly Christian.

The Viking threat

The entirety of Alfred’s life and reign as king was in the context of a long-lived Viking invasion of the British Isles. One of the first and most significant encounters the Anglo-Saxans had with the Danish Vikings was the attack on Lindisfarne in 793 AD. The Danes plundered the local monastery for its gold, killing many monks and taking the rest as slaves. The raids that followed this event would be small, consisting of ordinary viking farmers who wanted to increase their wealth by plundering non-resistant locations. But the nature of these raids would evolve. The easily obtained gold turned the isle of Britain into a sort of gold rush for Vikings thousands of miles away. Danes would adopt raiding as a full time occupation; no longer ordinary farmers, but vocational warriors. They would be after more than just easy accessible gold, they would be after a full-fledged invasion of Anglo-Saxon territory. The Viking threat continued to grow from the pillaging of Lindisfarne in 793 AD to the mid ninth century. 

The Danish invasions were successfully trouncing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Northumbria was defeated and the kingdoms of Mercia and East Anglia were heavily crippled. The only kingdom left the vikings had to conquer was the kingdom of Wessex. This was the grim and dreadful circumstance Alfred inherited at his accession to the throne. 

Alfred’s intelligence 

Alfred displayed an unparalleled level of intelligence throughout his life. Even as a young boy his intellectual brightness was evident. Osburh, Alfred’s mother,  promised a small book of poetry to the first of her children who could commit the entire book to memory. Unable to read at the time, he found someone who could read it for him so that he could memorize the volume. He returned to his mother, recited the contents of the book, and collected his prize.

When it came to warfare, Alfred didn’t just kill his viking enemies, he studied them to learn how to win future victories. His knowledge of their customs and culture often came in handy. For instance, when making a peace treaty with the Danes, Alfred knew that any oath made by the Christian God would not be honored by the Vikings for the reason that they had no respect for Christianity. Knowing their honor and devotion to Norse mythology, Alfred made them swear by the ring of Thor, a gold armband worn on the chieftain’s arm which was often used when they swore oaths to one another.

Alfred was also innovative. He invented a timing device, a sort of Anglo-Saxon clock. He had ordered his chaplains to bring him supplies for making candles. With enough experimentation, Alfred discovered that six candles of uniform size could accurately measure one twenty-four-hour day. Thus, he could better schedule his day, dividing time between matters of state, learning, and devotion to God.

Alfred’s military strategy

Alfred’s intelligence was also seen in him as a military strategist. His keen insights into warfare was essential for Wessex’s liberation from Viking oppression. This natural ability to fight off threats must have been developing early in his life. As a boy, Alfred’s father sent him on a lengthy pilgrimage to Rome in the year AD 853, in hopes that it would win the pope’s favor for Wessex and its king. During Alfred’s stay in Rome, he toured the great defensive walls of the city. The construction of these walls were completed only a couple of years before Alfred’s visit. About ten years earlier, Rome had been sacked by Saracen invaders. They plundered the city and the basilicas of saint Peter and Paul. The altar of Saint Peter’s had been robbed of approximately two hundred pounds of gold. It was in response to these attacks that Pope Leo IV ordered the fortification of the city. One can only imagine young Alfred casting his gaze on the great walls of Rome, imagining fortifying the cities of Wessex.

Alfred’s strategy was also seen on the battlefield. At the battle of Ashdown, Alfred commanded his soldiers to form a shieldwall. This was a tactic that was already considered ancient. It was practiced by the Greek hoplites as early as the seventh century BC. It consisted of a line of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder overlapping their shields to form a wall of protection. The front rank would be supported by approximately ten ranks directly behind the first. This allowed the unit to be potentially impenetrable provided that the soldiers maintain courage and endurance.

It was at Ashdown that the Saxons played a ruse on the Vikings by hiding half of their forces until the battle was well under way, luring the Danes into the fight only to find themselves outmatched. In all fairness, this strategy was somewhat unintended but Alfred was able to use it to his advantage.

After Alfred successfully regained his throne after being defeated by the Viking chieftain Guthrum in AD 878, he sought military reform to help better prepare for Viking raids on the towns of Wessex. The problem Alfred observed was that he only sustained a professional army of about 200 soldiers. The rest was local militia who were sluggish in getting battle ready and eager to get back home to tend to their regular responsibilities. To remedy this issue, Alfred insisted that each town assign half their militia to stand battle-ready while the other half carry on with their vocational work. Each half would rotate so that no one’s occupation would be neglected and there would be a defensive military force at all times.

Alfred also made new improvements to the Saxon navy. Having dominated the land of Wessex and knowing that the source of the Viking problem was the sea, Alfred created a naval force that would outmatch the Viking longboats. He instructed that the Wessex ships be twice as large as the enemy boats allowing sixty men to be on board. With sixty oars, in contrast to the typical Danish thirty, allowed Alfred’s ships to be faster and armed with twice as many soldiers. Aflred’s advancements in shipbuilding earned him the title “father of the English navy.” Modern historians oppose giving Alfred this credit for the reason that there is not a clear succession between Wessex’s naval superiority and the present Royal Navy. Regardless of how mythologized Alfred’s shipbuilding abilities are, his achievements in advancing Wessex navy was enough to earn for himself this honorary title.

King Alfred’s ability to learn from his military mistakes, improve upon his existing tactics, and use opportunities to his strategic advantage played a major role in the military success of Wessex. 

Divine deliverance

Being a great military leader was not the only factor in Alfred’s triumph over the Danes. God’s hand must have been upon him. At one point several thousand Danish soldiers sailed up the river Exe to join Guthrum in his campaign to conquer Wessex. Had the two military forces merged together against Aflred, the dreadful fate of the downfall of his kingdom would have been sealed. However, what can only be described as the omnipotent work of God delivered the Anglo-Saxons from annihilation. A dreadful storm struck the fleet of Danish ships sinking 120 Viking longboats. Assuming that each boat manned an average of thirty warriors, this loss would have been calculated to be roughly 3,600 men lost to the violent tempest. 

Alfred depicts the Gospel

Victory over the Danes was only a proximate goal for Alfred, not an ultimate goal. Underneath the determination to rid Wessex of the Viking threat was something more important to him—bringing glory to God. Alfred must have felt in his heart that deliverance from the Danes was in God’s sovereign hands. If that was the case, then Alfred must rule in accordance with the glory of God no matter how impractical the alternative might be.

In AD 878, Alfred gathers an army against Guthrum to take back the throne. What became known as the battle of Edington was the brutal defeat of the Viking warlord. Guthrum surrendered to Alfred, presumably, expecting to be tortured and executed. To the Vikings’ astonishment and shock, Alfred showed mercy. Alfred demanded that Guthrum take the Christian God as his own, and that Alfred was to sponsor him as his new godfather at his baptism. Guthrum accepted the terms of the treaty, offering Alfred to take his pick of the surviving Danish noblemen as hostages to guarantee his oath (p.129). Alfred invited Guthrum along with thirty of his noblemen to feast at his meadhall for several days before the christening. 

Guthrum, now called Æthelstan, appears to have been sincerely converted to the Christian faith. In late autumn of 878, a new Danish army arrived and set up camp just north of London. They sent word to Æthelstan, who was ruling in Cirencester, asking for him to join in overthrowing Wessex. The alliance would have prevailed against Alfred and his kingdom. All Æthelstan had to do was agree to join forces with the Danes. He refused and sent their emissaries away empty-handed. He and Aflred remained at peace for the rest of their time as rulers and after Æthelstan’s baptism, there is no reason to assume he was anything but a devout Christian.

Alfred’s decision to show mercy to his enemy can be interpreted in a number of ways. One might look at it as purely manipulative. Wining and dining the enemy is a viable way of purchasing a valuable alliance. However, the steadfastness of Alfred’s faith suggests that he was merely showing the mercy that his Lord and Savior once showed him while he himself was a spiritual rebel in sin. 

Education and learning

Education and Learning was very much lost in the Anglo-Saxon culture of Alfred’s day. The only individuals who could read in Wessex were the religious scholars. It was common for many of the priests and noblemen to be illiterate. Alfred knew that the future security, progress, and religious awakening of his kingdom would greatly depend on the revitalization reading. He devoted much of his energy and attention to imbuing Wessex with a desire and passion for education and learning.

Alfred established schools for children, aimed at teaching the very basics of the Anglo-Saxon language. The hope was that it would spark a continuous interest in reading and writing.

Literacy became a prerequisite for being a public official in Wessex. Alfred wanted the leaders under his command to be rich in wisdom and learning; a working knowledge in theology, philosophy, western literature, and most importantly the Holy Scriptures. This must have been an embarrassing scene to picture the nobleman who stood shoulder to shoulder in the shield walls at Ashdown and Edigton, now learning their alphabet. 

With help from his cadre of scholars, Alfred personally translated several works into the Anglo-Saxon language. These works included: Gregory’s Pastoral Care; Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy; Augustine’s Soliloquies; and Psalm 1-50 of the Bible.

Translating parts of Scripture into the common vernacular would place Alfed in the company of those who arrived several hundred years later. John Wycliffe, the “morning star of the Protestant Reformation” and his followers, the Lollards would translate the Latin text of Scripture into the common English of their day. Wycliffe would be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for his beliefs and his followers would be outcasts. When the Protestant Reformation finally reached England, inciting English translations of the Bible, newly reformed Aglican ministers were delightfully surprised to learn that Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible was not the first, but in a line of tradition that began with King Alfred. 

Alfred’s jurisprudence 

What is probably Alfred’s most long lasting achievement was his development in jurisprudence. Being a strong believer in the divine truth of Scripture, he knew justice was the very reflection of God’s character. In his mind, God is both just and transcendent. Therefore, true justice can only be in accordance with what God has revealed in his word. With this at the forefront of his thinking, Alfred developed a body of legislation that was based on the law of God. 

Alfred wrote his own dombac, the most comprehensive legal code up to this point in the history of Wessex. It began with the Ten Commandments, followed by lengthy excerpts of the case laws from Exodus chapters 21 through 23. The intention behind including these case laws was to illustrate how the decalogue had been applied in the ancient Near East so that judges in the criminal cases of Wessex could be better informed on how to apply the Ten Commandments in their own courts. 

Alfred’s legal code established the framework for what would eventually be known as “common law.” This legal system would dominate England for the next millennia as well as the former colonies of the British empire—including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Pakistan. One can only be astounded to think that some of the laws which provide liberty and justice today have a clear connection to Alfred over a millennium ago. 

Alfred’s contribution to Christianity

There is much the Christian church can learn from Alfred the Great. His leadership style should be a model for all modern politicians.  Three important lessons can be gleaned from the king of Wessex:

First, Alfred challenges the Christian Church to be involved with world affairs. When in hiding at Athelney from his enemies, one might say that it was most practical for Alfred to have given up on regaining his position of power. All hope seemed to be lost when the Danes had taken over all of England. Similar things can be said of the church. We have been commissioned by Christ to evangelize all the nations and teach them obedience (Matt 28:18-20), but one can’t help but be discouraged about the rampant corruption which seems to have dominated the world. At times, it feels as if the forces of evil have won and the Great Commission is a losing battle. But Alfred’s story encourages us that Jesus does in fact have all “authority in heaven and on earth.” Christ is ruling and reigning from his cosmic throne and directing the outcomes of this world for the benefit of his church (Eph 1:22). 

Second, Alfred gives hope to the modern Christian in the area of social and political change. The law of Wessex up until the time of Alfred was largely irrelevant due to the fact that the country was predominately illiterate. With the law of God as Alfred’s guide, he established a judicial system which had lasting impacts up to the present day and on many current nations. Because of king Alfred, advancing the Kingdom of God into the social and political realm is not merely idealistic—it is realistic. 

Third, Alfred raises the bar for our standards in choosing a political leader. God in his word has given us a window into the kind of king he desires to rule on his behalf. The book of Deuteronomy 17:18-20 speaks of a king who-

Shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom.

King Alfred modeled his administration after this instruction. He serves as an example of how political leaders ought to rule; and that is with an intimate knowledge and understanding of the law-word of God. Only a king who has been informed by God’s revelation can rule justly. Today Christians voters are quick to settle for a biblically unqualified leader based on the notion that good politicians never have and never will exist, therefore, picking the lesser evil is the right thing to do. But king Alfred’s record proves that godly leadership is possible and how holding out for one might be better than settling for less than qualified politicians. 

In conclusion, King Alfred the Great has earned this title for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is his dedication to advancing the kingdom, not of Wessex, but of heaven. Alfred knew that for any nation to succeed, it must have the divine favor of God. This is why he gave mercy to his enemies, promoted Christian education, and implemented God’s laws in Anglo-Saxon society. Modern nations would do well to follow Alfred’s lead.

Published by Ben Moore

Ben is a Christian worldview writer who holds a BA in Economics and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Biblical studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his beloved wife live and serve to see the Gospel permeate throughout all areas of life.

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