Parents teach your children history to introduce them to heroes, true heroes, who can be admired and become models for them to live by, especially in this darkened day of the “anti-hero.”
One such true hero was Alfred the Great. Alfred was the fifth son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons, born in 849 AD. He was born at a time when his father’s reign and kingdom was under constant threat and frequent attacks by Viking raiders.
The kingdom had suffered for over 50 years by the attacks of the Vikings who had adopted fast, mobile attack groups, sometimes numbering in the thousands, to raid the coastal cities. They had become more brazen and were attacking inland. The Vikings had begun to seize much of the territory and established settlements, even seizing the city of York in 867. Much of this was done by torture and death. Wessex was attacked in 870, and at the Battle of Ashdown in 871, Alfred routed the Viking army and led a viscously fought battle. Alfred’s brother died in that battle. At the young age of 21, Alfred was already a hardened veteran who personally knew the loss that war brings.
Alfred reigned from 871 to 899 AD. He was strong-willed, and often described as a “high strung.” He led his armies to resist the Vikings for many years. According to contemporary biographer Bishop Asser, “Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) … After fourteen days the pagans were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace.”
His victory proved to be, what another writer called “the turning point in Wessex’s battle for survival.”
All of this made Alfred a great, young leader, a resourceful fighter, and military strategist.
Alfred sought peace when it was possible. He negotiated treaties that were to the benefit of his people and kingdom, developed national defenses and fortresses, as well as river defenses, and a strong naval presence. He created what might be called a “rapid reaction force” of specially trained fighters whose job was to respond to the threat of invaders who sought to plunder the farmers and families in the countryside.
Alfred also married and had a family. He was, as one writer observed, “A religiously devout and pragmatic man who learnt Latin in his late thirties, he recognised that the general deterioration in learning and religion caused by the Vikings’ destruction of monasteries (the centres of the rudimentary education network) had serious implications for rulership.”
Alfred himself wrote of the general decay of learning in his land, “…so general was its [Latin] decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their rituals in English or translate a letter from Latin into English … so few that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames when I came to the throne.”
Alfred established a legal code and with applicable case-law applications. He wrote and republished books distributing them throughout his kingdom. Alfred wrote, “ … (I) collected these together and ordered to be written many of them which our forefathers observed, those which I liked; and many of those which I did not like I rejected with the advice of my councillors … For I dared not presume to set in writing at all many of my own, because it was unknown to me what would please those who should come after us … Then I … showed those to all my councillors, and they then said that they were all pleased to observe them” (Laws of Alfred, c.885-99).
Another writer accurately noted this about Alfred, “…(his) law code began with an introduction containing a translation of the Ten Commandments into English. God’s law was to be the basis of the law for Alfred’s Christian nation if it wished to be blessed by God. Following the Ten Commandments, Alfred included the Law of Moses (Exodus 21:1-23:19), the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), and a brief account of apostolic history and the growth of Christian law among the Christian nations.
Christian principles formed Alfred’s concept of justice as he chose the laws which were to be included from the Saxon tradition. In establishing justice in his kingdom, Alfred was especially concerned with protecting the weaker members of society, limiting blood feud, and reinforcing the duty of men to their lords. Heathen practices were forbidden, and the church was protected by law and granted immunity from taxation. The clergy became part of the king’s council.”
Alfred died in 899, at the age of 50, and was buried in Winchester, the burial place of the West Saxon royal family. One writer rightly observed and concluded this about Alfred, “it is for his valiant defence of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred – alone of all the English kings and queens – is known as ‘the Great’.”
If you are looking for heroes for your children or your family, Alfred is a very good place to start.