History is full of rulers who are called, by themselves or others, “great.” Men like Alexander the Great, whose huge empire of conquered nations dissolved a few years after his death, or women like Catherine the Great, who built fabulous palaces and art galleries at tremendous cost to her poor serfs. Usually a ruler’s greatness is limited to one small area, which is why few people in history truly compare with Alfred the Great.
When Alfred was born in 849 to King Æthelwulf of Wessex, Saxon England was not doing so well. The many small kingdoms in the British Isles were on bad terms with one another, and were constantly being invaded by Danish Vikings. As the youngest of five sons, nobody expected that Alfred would one day become a king, least of all Alfred himself, who assumed that he would serve his people in other ways.
In God’s providence however, all four of his elder brothers assumed the throne and then died, and by 871 Alfred was the only son left. When he became the King of Wessex, his kingdom and his people were poor and desolate. The Danish invaders had destroyed most of the towns and most of the army. At one point, Alfred and his soldiers found themselves fleeing through swamps and forests, with no camp, or food, or reinforcements, hiding in huts and begging peasants for food. Alfred surely worried that he was not only the last king of his father’s line, but possibly the last English king that Britain would ever see.
Despite overwhelming odds and miserable conditions, Alfred did not give up. He built an island fortress to regroup, and from there rebuilt his armies and began to retake his kingdom from the Vikings. After years of fighting, they finally drove the invading armies back to a single fort where he besieged them for weeks. When the barbarians finally surrendered, he showed them great mercy, feeding them, sharing the gospel with them, and even baptizing their chief.
He had proven himself to be a great warrior and military leader, but now he proved himself to be a great Christian king. He rebuilt his nation on a system of small fortified towns guarded by militias, and divided the farmland into shires protected by sheriffs. The larger cities like London were built around a grid system of streets that he laid out, and he began building England’s biggest navy to date, based on ships of his own design.
Throughout the years of his reign, he would continue to repel Viking invasions, but his focus was always on the strengthening his own nation, and encouraging his own people. He understood that no matter how good their external defenses might be, nations are judged and blessed by a sovereign God. Alfred’s people were in the hand of the Lord, Who would hold them responsible for their own conduct.
To this end he laid down a completely new legal system, based on the Ten Commandments and case laws of the Old Testament. This structure has served as the framework for the British Common Law system that exists today, over 1000 years later. He limited the death penalty to only the capital crimes he saw in Scripture, and replaced tortures and physical punishments with a system of restitution. He also demanded that all men be treated equally in the eyes of the law, whether they be English or Danish, rich or poor.
Alfred also understood that men were only as strong as their faith and doctrine, and so he paid for the translation of many books from Latin into the common English tongue. He focused his translators’ efforts on church history so that his people would understand where they had come from. Most interestingly, he painstakingly translated many books himself.
These included large sections of the Old Testament, various English histories, and theological books by Augustine, Gregory, and Boethius. As a translator, Alfred’s main goal was the edification of his people, and so if Boethius’ philosophical conclusions needed annotations and corrections, he would make them. If Gregory’s book Pastoral Care needed more practical examples and directions for civil leaders, he would insert them, and in his prefaces, he would explain why.
Most “great” rulers in the world seek greatness through political power and control over others, but Jesus explains in Mark 10:43-44 that this is not really how greatness works: “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
Alfred truly made himself the servant of all. If his people needed boats, he would build them. If his people needed books, he would translate them. If they needed hymns, he would write them – not by creating a National Arts Endowment, but by putting down his sword for a moment and actually writing a hymn. He even made himself a servant of the Danes in his pursuit of mercy and peace through treaties.
As Alfred tirelessly sought to serve, and not merely fought to build his own influence, the other small British kingdoms around Wessex rallied to him, and he soon found himself the Protector, and servant, of other Kings and Celtic princes.
Any one of the things that Alfred accomplished in his lifetime would have made him great man. If he were merely Alfred the Defender, or Alfred the Builder, or Alfred the Lawgiver, he would still be remembered as one of the noblest kings in history. But because his love for his people led him to serve in so many different ways, he will always be remembered as truly great…and so, Alfred the Great.