Alfred!

Alfred the Great is the only English king ever to achieve that remarkable title. And yet recent scholarship seems determined to prove that he did not perhaps deserve such a title. Though there is little question of Alfred’s military prowess, his contributions to education and scholarship often come under fire. Accusations of incorrect authorship are the most common and are generally used in an effort to show that Alfred was not a special as England would like to think. In fact scholars seem to go out of their way to show that Alfred was nothing more than a strong military leader. This type of scrutiny and derision is really rather foolish. Despite the fact that a few (and only a few!) of the translations attributed to Alfred have been proven as belonging to another author, several of his greatest contributions are still very much uncontested. The pillar of his translations, The Consolation of Philosophy is thus far unquestionably Alfred’s. The next accusation that comes is that most of the work was done by scribes and not Alfred. There is not a great deal of evidence for or against this statement, but even so there is little question that Alfred was very much involved in the process. This can clearly be seen by his remarkable prefaces and commentary within his translations. Today, his translations are used in many colleges by students learning Old English, evidence that even today Alfred makes a difference. Finally, even without the translations Alfred still contributed in remarkable ways to scholarship and education. He welcomed scholars into his realm and worked to achieve literacy in his kingdom. Despite the efforts to debunk Alfred and his title, the fact of the matter is that Alfred more than deserves his title and fame. Because of Alfred, England achieved a period of piece, new military practices, and the increase of literacy throughout the kingdom. His translations made several important works accessible to his people and provided future generations with excellent examples of Old English through the lens of a highly intelligent man. Even setting aside the many contributions that he made, Alfred was great because of the kind of person and king that he was. Highly intelligent, deeply spiritual, and an excellent military commander; Alfred’s achievements, personality, and passion for his people far outweigh any evidence current scholars attempt to throw at them.
As a person, Alfred is generally seen as exemplary. As a child and later in life he is usually described as “thoughtful, sensitive and with an eager curiosity, and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.” Similar epithets are often used, especially “thoughtful.” Clearly Alfred was a very intelligent person from the very beginning. How his contemporaries may have seen him is a bit hazy. A letter from Pope John VIII stating Alfred as “wronging the house of the Lord and ignoring Canterbury’s privileges” has been cited as a possible continental view. This is a letter that is only mentioned by one source and is a letter that is rather difficult to believe in the face of Alfred’s own piety. Perhaps this letter only pertains to that moment in time, when Alfred was in some debate with Canterbury. It is an interesting letter to have, but one that is likely an isolated incident as Alfred’s piety is well known and was to his contemporaries as well. In other aspects Alfred was somewhat ignored on the Continent (according to Janet Turner) and later historians were the ones who pointed out his similarities to Charlemagne and his similar attempts for literacy on the Continent. Given the bishops and scholars that he was able to call to his side, it is more likely that his Continental contemporaries saw him as a good and intelligent man as well. The Vikings eventually came to respect him and form the Danelaw with him. To his own people though (and really their opinion is the most important), Alfred was a good and strong king, with a great deal of military might.
Alfred’s contributions to his military is generally accepted. Surprisingly, the actual battles that Alfred fought were often defeats. The image of the warrior king nonetheless stands. The reason for this is the fact that while Alfred may not have been overwhelmingly successful he “always made a