Our understanding of the literary achievements of King Alfred depends very much upon what we believe about his early education. If we are content to accept the stories of Asser, the famous biographer of Alfred, that he reached his twelfth birthday before he learned to read (Keynes 75), then we must reckon his literary career as a phenomenon which can only be described, not explained.
Or, if that is not satisfactory, we may compare him in his adult life to his grandfather’s (Egbert) contemporary Charles the Bald (grandson of Charlemange), who, being illiterate, knew the value of learning, and surrounded himself with educated men (Collins 297). As a child, Alfred received little formal training or schooling.
He did possess a highly retentive memory and particularly enjoyed listening to the court bards reciting poetry. One day his mother, holding a fine manuscript book in her hand, said to Alfred and his elder brothers, ‘I will give this book to whichever of you can learn it most quickly.’
Although he could not read, Alfred was greatly attracted to the book and was determined to own it. Forestalling his brothers, he took it to his teacher who read it to him. He then went back to his mother and repeated the entire book from memory to her (Fadiman 14, Keynes 75).
This talent was the foundation of Alfred’s later reputation as a scholar, translator, and patron of learning. As Alfred’s role as king and patron began, he solemnly noted on several occasions his disappointment in the state of educational opportunity in England. “Formerly,” the King wrote bitterly, “men came hither from foreign lands to seek for instruction, and now when we desire it we can only obtain it from abroad” (Collins 329, Smyth 249-250).
But his efforts were far from being imprisoned within his own island.
He sent shipmasters to the seas and coasts of the continent and surrounding islands in search of dialogue with others. It was with the Franks, from central Europe (present-day Germany, France, and surrounding countries), that his dealings were closest, and it was from them that he invited scholars to aid him in his work of education.
A scholar named Grimbald came from St. Omer to preside over his new abbey at Winchester; and John the Old Saxon, was brought from the abbey of Corbey to rule a monastery and school that Alfred’s gratitude for his deliverance from the wars with the Danes raised in the marshes of Athelney (Keynes 26-27, Stevenson 93,103)
The real work, however, to be done was done, not by these scholars, but by the King himself. Alfred established a school for the young nobles of his court, and it was to the need of books for these scholars in their own tongue that we owe his most remarkable literary effort.
Alfred immersed himself in his books as he found them — they were popular manuals of his age — The Consolidation of Philosophy by Boethius, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter. Alfred is credited with translating himself.
In addition, several translations were prepared as part of Alfred’s plan, they include, the compilation of Orosius’ Histories Against the Pagans (the one book of universal history), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the history of his own people in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (Keynes 29, Smyth 527-566) In addition to translating these works into English, he was also responsible for the editing (omitting here and expanding there) of most of the books.
He enriched Orosius by sketching new geographical discoveries in the north of England and Scandinavia. He gave a West Saxon form to his selections from Bede. In one place he stops to explain his theory of government, his wish for a thicker population, his conception of national welfare as consisting of a due balance of priest, soldier, and peasant (Keynes 132-133, Smyth 530-534).
And the cold providence of Boethius gave way to Alfred’s enthusiastic acknowledgment of the goodness of God (Keynes 137, Smyth 562-566).
As he writes, his large-hearted nature casts aside its royal mantle. “Do not blame me,” he states with charming simplicity, “if any know Latin better than I, for every man must say what he says and do what he does according to his ability” (Collins 334). But a simple was his aim, Alfred changed the whole front of English literature as we know it.
Before him, England possessed in her own tongue one great poem and a train of ballads and battle-songs (Abrahms 2). Of prose the country had none. The large volume of books that fill England’s libraries began with the translations of Alfred, and above all the chronicles of his reign.
It seems likely that the King’s rendering of Bede’s history gave the first impulse toward the compilation of what is known as the English or Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was certainly thrown into its present form during his reign.
The meager lists of the kings of Wessex and the bishops of Winchester, which had been preserved from older times, were roughly expanded into a national history by insertions from Bede; but it is when it reaches the reign of Alfred that the chronicle and Anglo-Saxon scholarship suddenly widens into the vigorous narrative, full of life and originality, that marks the gift of new power to the English language.
Varying as it does from age to age in historic value, Alfred’s contributions remain the first vernacular history of any Teutonic people and the earliest and most venerable monument of English prose.
As Charles Dickens later wrote in his book: I pause to think with admiration of the noble king, who, in his single person, possessed all the Saxon virtues; whom misfortune could not subdue, whom prosperity could not spoil, whose perseverance nothing could shake; who was hopeful in defeat, and generous in success; who loved justice, freedom, truth, and knowledge; who, in his care to instruct his people, probably did more to preserve the beautiful Saxon language than I can imagine; without whom the English tongue in which I tell this story might have wanted half its meaning. Alfred’s intellectual activity breathed fresh life into English education and literature.
His capacity for inspiring trust and affection drew the hearts and minds of Englishmen to a common center and began the building of a New England. Never had England seen a ruler who set aside every personal aim to devote himself solely to the welfare of those whom he ruled.
If the sphere of his action seems too small to justify the comparison of him with the few whom the world calls its greatest men, he rose to their level in the moral and unselfish course of his life. And it is this which has hallowed his memory among the English people.
“I desire,” said the King in some of his last words, “I desire to leave to the men that come after me a remembrance of me in good works” (Collins 343).
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology Of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe 300-1000. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Dickens, Charles. A Child’s History Of England. Bureau of Electronic Publishing, Inc., 1992.
Fadiman, Clifton, ed. The Little, Brown Book Of Anecdotes. Boston: Little, Brown And Company, 1985.
Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge, Introduction, Notes, and Trans. Alfred The Great: Asser’s Life Of King Alfred And Other Contemporary Sources. Suffolk: The Chaucer Press, 1983.
Smyth, Alfred P. King Alfred The Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Stevenson, W. H., ed. Asser’s Life of King Alfred 1904. Introd. by D. Whitelock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.