A little history: Alfred the Great (849 – 899)

220px-Statue_d'Alfred_le_Grand_à_WinchesterIn 872, when Alfred was only 23 he succeeded his brother, Aethelred as King of Wessex. Shortly after this he embarked upon his famous retreat into the Marshes, complete with implausible stories about burnt cakes. The war with Guthrum’s invading Vikings was brutal and bloody but eventually, a combination of Saxon courage and Alfred’s strategy won the day.

It’s no exaggeration to report that Alfred’s victory really did change the course of history, not just for Wessex and the Saxons but for the whole of Europe and ultimately the world. Without Alfred we’d have lost more than we can count, so great was his influence that it stretches right up into the modern era and will continue to do so far into the future.

Following the defeat of Guthrum, Alfred consolidated and even expanded his Kingdom, establishing around 33 fortified Hide defences, each one within a days’ march of its neighbour and each one capable of accommodating and protecting the local community from future attack. These defences, known collectively as the Burghal Hidage, also served as bases for military strikes against any future invading armies. The fortifications contained permanent garrisons which complemented the equally permanent standing army ‘in the field’. This was a military infrastructure that was both entrenched and responsive!

Alfred even established the first proper Navy (no – it wasn’t Henry VIII – Alfred did it first) to combat Viking marauders who threatened the coastline. But that’s not why Alfred was ‘the Great’. It was his intellectual, legal and administrative influence that earned him his place of honour in word history.

Like Charlemagne before him, Alfred was keen for his people, all of his people, to be educated. There’s an astonishing circularity of influence throughout Medieval Christendom that begins with Gregory the Great and ends with Alfred. The cycle moves from Gregory the Great and Isidore of Seville to Bede of Jarrow, to Alcuin of York, to Charlemagne, to Alfred the Great and then back to Gregory with Alfred’s Anglo- Saxon translation of the famous Pope’s ‘The Pastoral Care’ some 400 years after it was first written down in the original Latin.

Alfred also personally translated Boethius’ ‘Consolations of philosophy’ and was clear that the many Anglo-Saxon translations he created or procured were to be widely taught among the Anglo-Saxon youth. Alfred was the first English authority to understand the value of educating not just the nobility, but everyone. He was the original British champion of what we now call ‘universal education’, a theme of modern socialism which sees education as the most effective and long-lasting means of improving the general standard of living for working people.

Following Boethius’ model of the hierarchy of topics such as the trivium and quadrivium, Alfred intended for Anglo- Saxon literacy to be widespread, for the translated core texts to be widely studied and only then for Latin works to be the focus of further study. He saw literacy as vital to the life of an effective state and language as the glue that would hold the developing nation together.

Just as Charlemagne had focussed on Latin translation of important texts to ensure their wide distribution, Alfred reversed the trend for the exact same reason. Charlemagne had been so successful in creating Latin versions of key texts that few were available in any other languages. That may not have been a problem for the head of the Carolingian empire but for Alfred, the King of a relatively minor region in the South of England it was a very big problem indeed. Almost none of his subjects were able to read Latin and this meant that many of the greatest minds were quite literally closed books so far as England was concerned.

So – in his late thirties Alfred organised and even participated in the translation of key texts into Anglo Saxon. He had these books distributed throughout his kingdom. Like Charlemagne before him, Alfred instigated a public education programme, a system which in turn facilitated his new administrative system. It’s no exaggeration to say that the idea of modern England was born with Alfred who not only expanded his realm but also educated and cared for those within it.

Alfred organised and in part authored the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a history of his realm written down for posterity and, perhaps most importantly of all – he produced a written record of codified laws. It was this collection of record-keeping, education, jurisprudence and the creation of national identity that transformed Wessex (and ultimately England). Alfred’s dominion went from a rough collection of allied principalities to a unified state with the foundations that eventually built a nation, an empire, a legal system and even a parliamentary system of government.

Without Alfred it is arguable that the knowledge that facilitated the beginnings of the English state would never have been made available to the masses. It was Alfred’s work that kept the torch of non-clerical education alight throughout the centuries to come when the medieval church tried their best to keep knowledge and literacy to themselves. His translations of foundational texts effectively broke the religious monopoly by enabling and encouraging successive English generations to champion the vernacular and keep secular education alive. Without Alfred’s work there would have been little for them to study anyway. We will meet some of the heroes of this intellectual tradition as the series progresses.

Alfred’s influence stretches far beyond the ninth century world he inhabited. Without Alfred we would live in a very different (I suspect a much poorer), religiously dominated society indeed. He was one of our nation’s most benevolent leaders and he genuinely seems to have understood the value of opportunity for every man (women’s rights still weren’t a thing in Alfred’s day, I’m afraid) to be educated to the limit of his ability and for all to have an opportunity to learn and develop intellectually. That’s one of the many reasons why Alfred is still recognised as ‘The Great’.


Compare that to the words of conservative cabinet minister, Michael Gove who, in 2003 whilst he was secretary of state for education, told The Times

“Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which as far as I’m concerned is all to the good.”

Mr. Gove, who can say these things whilst simultaneously opposing private schools went on to trivialise the debt burden by comparing it to favourable earnings post-graduation but the underlying divisiveness came across loud and clear. He may just as well have said…

Those people too poor to throw £20 odd grand around without having to think seriously about it first are probably too stupid to be in further education in the first place!