In the history of the British people there has only ever been one monarch called great. Alfred the Great reigned in Wessex from 871-899 A.D., but unlike other “great” rulers, like Alexander, Alfred is not known for how much territory he conquered. In fact, G. K. Chesterton immortalized Alfred’s reluctance to conquer more land in what many consider to be the last great epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, when Alfred says,
Asia and all imperial plains
Are too little for a fool;
But for one man whose eyes can see
The little island of Athelney
Is too large a land to rule.
Alfred’s humility is inspiring, but it leaves his admirers asking what characteristics made Alfred great. While historians still debate why Alfred was great, the answer is revealed in his character and by the context of his life.
About the year 793, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reads: “Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky.” These omens portended the invasion of the dreaded Danes. The Chronicle continues: “Shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed gods church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s description of the Danish invasion reads like a passage from the apocalypse of Revelation. It says the Danes appear piloting fiery dragons through the stormy sky and in the wake of a deadly famine. Their invasion appeared to be the end of the world as the Britons knew it. Fear only increased as the Danes conquered all but the kingdom of Wessex.
But Alfred, reminiscent of King Arthur rising from the sea, would not allow Wessex to fall. At the age of twenty-three, Alfred had distinguished himself in battle while on a campaign with his older brother Æthelred, the King of Wessex. At the town of Ashdown, Alfred found himself in peril without his brother, the general, who was in the camp seeking God’s divine intervention. Realizing the urgency of the moment, Alfred led a charge up the hill against the Danish in a fierce skirmish occupying them long enough that Æthelred’s forces could join Alfred and win the battle. Not long after, Æthelred died and Alfred took his place as king, winning the war by defeating the Danish at Edingtone.
Despite his military victories, Alfred is not remembered as a powerful king of great physical prowess. He was actually a small man and sickly (modern doctors believe he had Crohn’s disease). This puny boy-king not only defeated the Danes, he also revitalized Wessex and established lasting peace and prosperity. His greatness, and even his success in battle, is impossible to explain in terms of physical power. Instead, we observe the source of Alfred’s strength in the vibrant life of his mind and the strength of his pious character, both products of his classical education.
The earliest stories of Alfred foreshadow what would ultimately distinguish him from other kings. One day when Alfred was young, his mother showed him and his three brothers a book of Saxon poems and said that whoever memorized the book of poetry first would receive the book. The beauty of the ornate designs inspired Alfred, and he quickly committed the entire book to memory.
As Alfred grew older, he became obsessively dedicated to learning. His biographer, a contemporary in his court named Asser, records that Alfred was passionate about the liberal arts and that, specifically, he mastered the trivium and the quadrivium. Alfred lamented that the war with the Danes had driven out of the country all the educated men, so he gathered scholars in Wessex and invited them to stay at his court, examining them and exposing himself to new ideas. He even required that four scholars follow him around and read aloud to him so that he was always learning. He kept a small book that he called his “manual.” He wrote down beautiful passages from the Psalms, Augustine’s Soliloquies, and Saxon poetry that struck him as noteworthy and beautiful. Alfred’s manual attests to the life of his mind and proves that he knew that in order to be a great king he needed to able to do more than deal with political problems. He needed to know intimately the true, the good, and the beautiful, so that the people of his kingdom would flourish and not just survive.
Alfred’s own love for learning inspired him to revitalize the education system of his kingdom. In the hundred years since the Danes had invaded, the institutions of higher learning and religion had fallen into disrepute. Most people could not read English, much less the Latin required to understand church writings. The previous British kings had focused on temporary needs and pragmatic solutions. They invested in weapons and wealth, hoping to either bribe the Danes for peace or beat them in battle. But though he had beaten the Danes, Alfred knew that they would invade again, and if there was ever to be lasting peace the people had to rise above their circumstances.
For this reason, Alfred did not merely order his subordinates to improve the education system. He contributed to it himself. Alfred translated five books from Latin into English: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Augustine’s Soliloquies, Orosius’ Histories Against the Pagans, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and sections of the Vulgate translation of the Psalms and Exodus. In the preface to Pastoral Care, he wrote, “Therefore, he seems to me a very foolish man, and truly wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world, and ever wish and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.” Alfred believed that all men must read certain books to grow in virtue and love wisdom.
Alfred’s desire for learning flowed from a heart of sincere piety. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, tells of a vow Alfred made to spend twelve hours every day dedicated to God. Trying to carry out this vow, Alfred became frustrated because he could not always accurately count the hours by the sun. On days where it was storming and overcast, he lost track of how many hours of service he needed to do. So, Alfred gathered wax and boiled it down into six candles, each one twelve inches long. When these six candles were all burned up, it represented the passing of one full day. This brilliant candle idea, however, continued to frustrate Alfred, as the wind would often blow into his palace and put out the candles. Alfred would not be deterred, so he took an ox horn, cutting it so thinly that it was translucent, and made a kind of lampstand. This way, every day he could dedicate exactly twelve hours to the service of God, measuring them by the burning of candles in his ox horn lampstand.
The fruit of Alfred’s education was not just esoteric and spiritual, but evidently his classical education also shaped his military reforms. Inspired by the Roman navy, Alfred invented his own design for new galley warships to defeat the Danes who had dominated the sea for the last few hundred years. Much like the famous Greek, Themistocles, at the battle of Salamis, Alfred’s galleys bottlenecked the Danish navy, allowing his larger force to board and eradicate the enemy.
Alfred also invented an entirely new way of waging land war. He kept a large standing army in addition to sentries guarding thirty-three small fortresses in Wessex, all within nineteen miles of each other. Based at the fortresses, the sentries could launch an attack on the Danes and then retreat to the fortress to regroup, knowing the standing army would shortly arrive to reinforce them. Alfred’s strategy enabled the Britons to resist assaults on every side.
In light of all of these anecdotes from Alfred the Great’s life, it’s hard to believe that he was merely a shrewd politician. The chronicle of Alfred’s life indicates a connection between his success and the education that formed him. The proof of this connection can nowhere be seen more clearly than in the way he reformed the legal system of Britain. Alfred personally inquired into every judge in Britain who was accused of false judgment. If any judge ever admitted that he made an error in judgment because of ignorance, Alfred would say:
I greatly wonder at your assurance, that whereas, by God’s favor and mine, you have taken upon you the rank and office of the wise, you have neglected the studies and labors of the wise. Either, therefore, at once give up the administration of the earthly powers which you possess, or endeavor more zealously to study the lessons of wisdom.
Alfred did not arbitrarily remove judges who opposed him, nor did he enact his own standard of law, nor did he only appoint judges predisposed to side with him. Instead, Alfred called judges to educate themselves. He was not a king who held himself up as an example of power and wisdom. Instead, Alfred the Great constantly pointed to the sources of his wisdom, and pushed others to seek it for themselves.
In the The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton casts Alfred the Great as a humble king committed to the cause of truth, goodness, and beauty. Chesterton understood that Alfred’s conflict against the Danes was not all that unlike the conflicts we face today. In fact, Chesterton’s Alfred prophecies,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.
They shall not come with warships,
They shall not waste with brands,
But books be all their eating,
And ink be on their hands.
Today we fight, not a horde of invading Danes, but a slow and insidious erosion of culture. The greatness of Alfred—his piety and courage, his wisdom and humility—is a product of his classical education. But more than that, his greatness is a testament to how a classical education can form any student who pursues it faithfully. Ultimately, Alfred taught us that great kings (and teachers and doctors and mothers and judges) love to learn.