King Alfred the Great

by Josiah Audette

alfred the great

Wash you, make you clean, take away the evil of your works from before mine eyes: cease to do evil. Learn to do well: seek judgment, relieve the oppressed: judge the fatherless, and defend the widow. come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins were as crimson, they shall be made white as snow: though they were red like scarlet, they shall be as wool, If ye consent and obey, ye shall eat the good things of the land. But if ye refuse and be rebellious, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Isaiah 1. 16-20

INTRODUCTION

This passage is increasingly relevant to the plight of western Christendom today. Our local and supreme courts have forsaken the divine justice in its exercise of its judgments, our statist, welfare society has fostered an individualism under which no one fares well, we murder the fatherless, and we commercially institutionalize the widow. Consequentially, as the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it, we are being devoured religiously by immigrant invasion, devoured economically by an all-consuming state, devoured morally by the sexual revolution, devoured ethically by the supreme court zeitgeist, devoured politically by a mobocracy, and aesthetically by a culture of death. However, these things will not be the cause of our nation’s overthrow. They are the result. The result of a lethargic apostasy in the  Christian worship of local churches.

This is not the first time the church, or English speaking peoples have relinquished themselves to be devoured in such a manner. To this end, we may look back 1200 years ago to the time of the England of the Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred the Great. Who took an almost entirely defeated and devoured nation back from the viking invaders, enlightened a practically illiterate and ignorant Christian people, built a diversified and thriving economy, reformed the laws of justice in the land, and revived a latent church. He was a King David in his deliverance of Israel from the vikings, a King Solomon in his teaching and legislating wisdom and justice to the people, and a King Josiah in reforming a dying church. Truly, he was Alfred… the Great.

PROPHET OF NORTHUMBRIA

Alcuin, a native of Northumbria (Northern England) wrote the following indictment depicting the state of the nation to the king of northern England. “Carefully consider, brothers, and diligently note: lest this extraordinary and unheard of evil might be somehow merited by the habit of some unspoken wickedness. I am not saying that the sin of fornication never appeared before among the people. But since the days of King Alfwold, fornications, adulteries, and incest have inundated the land, such that these sins have been perpetrated without any shame, even against nuns who have been dedicated to God. What can I say about greed, robbery, and perverted judgments? When it is clearer than daylight, how much these crimes have flourished everywhere and it is witnessed by a plundered people.” Firstly, what was this extraordinary and unheard evil being merited? It was the viking raids. At the time of Alfred’s birth in 849 the vikings had terrorized the inhabitants of the land in their savage raids of murder, rapine, and plunder. Religious communities especially were their targets of choice. Monasteries and churches full of wealth were plundered by the vikings who then made hasty retreats evading the sluggish saxon military. Their violence was nothing less than terrorizing, where for them the crueler the death the greater the story. They preyed on the Saxon’s weaknesses of community isolation, defenceless monasteries, and Christian holidays. One record depicts the viking execution of the defeated king of East Anglia, king Edward. “First the king was bound to a tree, where he was scourged and beaten. Then the Vikings shot arrows at him until he ‘bristled like a hedgehog.’ Annoyed at his continued calling out to Christ, the Vikings finally beheaded him.” This “extraordinary and unheard evil” referred to by that native of Northumbria is sadly not a foreign reality to us 1200 years later where Christian leaders are still being tortured and beheaded by eastern invaders. No less familiar to our society is this “habit of some unspoken wickedness” in the devoured land of England. What was this unconfessed, secret national sin that the native of Northumbria was referring to which merited such plunder? Prior to the viking invasions, England had witnessed a time of prosperity. To which the Christian people had become both indolent, ignorant, and insolent. Their love of Christian works and Christian work wained so much so that at the time of King Alfred hardly any church or statesman could understand the Latin tongue. This intellectual lethargy in the church gradually digressed into paganism in the society. Paganism marked by sexual revolution, oppression, and the abandonment of justice. Just as the native of Northumbria, who patterned his speech after the prophet Isaiah, passed judgment on the land. The native of Northumbria warns even us today that the cause of this “extraordinary and unheard evil” [of eastern invaders] is merited by our “habit of some unspoken wickedness.” Where sexual revolution has “inundated the land, such that these sins have been perpetuated without any shame.” And what too can we say of the “greed [Of people rich in debt], robbery [Of wealth redistribution], and perverse judgments  [Of the courts and parliament]? When it is clearer than daylight, how much these crimes have flourished everywhere and is witnessed by a plundered people.”

O Guide, if Thou wilt not steer fortune amain

But lets her rush so self-willed and vain,

I know that the world will doubt of Thy might,

And few among men in Thy rule will delight.

My Lord, overseeing all things from on high

Look down on mankind with mercy’s mild eye,

In wild waves of trouble they struggle and strive,

Then spare the poor earthworms, and save them alive!

“A Psalm to God” by King Alfred the Great

BATTLE OF ASHTOWN

As the native of Northumbria forewarned, in the autumn of 866 the kingdom of Northumbria fell to the vikings, followed by the kingdom of Mercia in 867, and the kingdom of East Anglia in 869. The only Anglo-Saxon kingdom remaining was the kingdom of Wessex ruled by king Ethelwulf, whose son was Alfred. Like David of Jesse, Alfred was the youngest and fifth born son of king Ethelwulf. Like Joseph, he was favoured by his parents. Like Christ, he grew in wisdom and stature. Of his childhood the Bishop of Assar writes, “He was loved by his father and mother, and even by all the people, above all his brothers, and was educated altogether at the court of the king. As he advanced through the years of infancy and youth, his form appeared more comely than that of his brothers; in look, in speech, and in manners he was more graceful than they.” Alfred developed a love for the poetry of the Saxon tongue, together with the disciplines of hunting and fighting. All of which would serve him well in his future reign. However, Alfred’s family was plagued by the treachery of the eldest son against the kingship of his father together with the deaths of many of his brothers in battle against the vikings, and ultimately the death of his father in 858. Only Alfred and his older brother Ethelred remained of the royal family. Both of whom would fight valiantly against the vikings. One of the brothers most notable engagements was the Battle of Ashdown. Alfred was a mere twenty-two years of age, neither a king or seasoned soldier. Notwithstanding he lead his men to the place where the vikings had gathered for their attack on the last standing kingdom of Wessex. In this battle Alfred was not only lacking in age, kingship, and experience, but also lacked the better ground in the battle. The vikings had positioned themselves at the top of a hill and thus began the first formality of viking battle to the Saxons assembled bellow, namely, the flyting. Flyting, was an exchange of insults, ranging from accusations of cowardice, to graphic depictions of what would be done to their corpses and womenfolk waiting in Wessex. After this demoralizing assault of words, began the assault advance of the vikings tumbling down the hill towards Alfred’s men. Alfred commanded his men to form a shieldwall where the front line overlaps their shields, brace each other shoulder to shoulder, and the ranks of men behind lean into the front line for support. Once Alfred had commanded such a formation he joined the front line wall. Much to the surprise of both the Vikings and Saxons the shield wall held the initial impact and furthermore began to push the Vikings backwards up the hill from whence they descended. This initial success worked an almost animal rage in Alfred in cutting down the Vikings. His men later would depict him in battle as a wild boar on the battlefield, razing through the enemy lines as a bloody beast. Alfred and his ability to command was stuck in the shieldwall, from which no man could depart lest the vikings break through the gap. As a Saxon fell on the front line another would immediately step up from behind him to fill the wall. Naturally the length of the battle up the hill began to put a strain not he shieldwall. Alfred’s brother, Ethelred, was to join him in battle, but was delayed by a prolonged morning mass. When his aid was most needed, Ethelred accompanied by his men appeared over the ridge and attacked the vikings from the side. The Battle of Ashtown was among the first notable victories for the Saxons. After which the bulk of their men returned home to tend to their home and work leaving the two kingly brothers with a meagre army. Despite this great victory, the armies of Wessex continued to loose in battle with the Vikings. In one of which loses, Ethelred was gravely wounded an shortly went the way of all flesh. Upon the death of his last family member Alfred received the crown of Wessex. He was their only and last defender.

None would think the daylight dear

If dim night they did not fear;

So, to every one of us,

On the broad earth dwelling thus, 

Joy more joyous still is seen

After troubles once have been.

“Uses of Adversity” by King Alfred the Great

A SIGHT OF DESPAIR

One could imagine the sorrow and anguish Alfred must have felt, especially, as melancholy had been his disposition from youth. One record recounts, “The aforesaid Alfred often fell into such great misery, that sometimes none of his subjects knew where he was or what had become of him.” Beyond this mental anguish of internal anxieties, kingly burdens, and continual invasions by the Vikings, Alfred was plagued by physical pain. During his youth, Alfred found himself greatly tempted by the lewdness of the sexual revolution about him and prayed daily for God to give him some sort of physical affliction (So long as it was not deforming or disabling) to curb his sinful affliction. God delivered him from the lusts of a young man with the excruciating disease of piles. Gradually, depleted by the misery and agony of the disease Alfred asked God deliver him, which the Lord was pleased to do. Until the day of his marriage to Ealswith, where in the middle of the marriage feast Alfred doubled over in incapacitating pain. This mysterious internal torment would not leave Alfred until his death. King Alfred took great relief in the Psalms of David and wrote poetry of his own to combat his melancholy. We can glimpse something of his agony in his poem, “A Sight of Despair.”

Alas! in how grim

A gulf of despair,

Dreary and dim

For sorrow and care,

My mind toils along

When the waves of the world

Stormy and strong

Against it are hurled.

When in such strife my mind will forget

Its light and its life

In worldly regret,

And though the night

Of this world doth grope

Lost to the light

Of heavenly hope.

Thus it hath no

Befallen my mind

I know no more how

God’s goodness to find,

But groan in my grief

Troubled and tost,

Needing relief

For the world I have lost.”

Alfred’s contemporary biographer, the Bishop of Assar, wrote of this aspect of Alfred with the following: “But the Almighty not only granted to the same glorious king victories over his enemies, but also permitted him to be harassed by them, to be sunk down by adversities, and depressed by the low estates office followers, to the end that he might learn that there is one Lord of all things, to whom every knee doth bow, and in whose hand are the hearts of kings; who puts down the mighty from their seat and exalteth the humble; who suffers his servants when they are elevated at the summit of prosperity to be touched by the rod of adversity, that in their humility they may not despair of God’s mercy, and in their prosperity they may bot boast of their honours, but may also know, to whom they owe all the things which they possess.”

THE RESURRECTION OF ALFRED

This despair was only the beginning for King Alfred. Of the many battle and skirmishes waged against the raiding army after Ashdown, the victory had gone to the Viking marauders, whose ultimate victory seemed eminent. However, of all the other Saxon kingdoms none other had resisted the Vikings so strong or cost them so much as King Alfred’s Wessex. But neither resistance nor extortion payment could keep them off, so that in the end (Or what seemed to be the end) the nobles of Wessex betrayed King Alfred and took oaths of Submission to the Viking commander, Guthrum. As one biographer morbidly notes, “Cut off from his throne, his court, and his armies, Alfred, betrayed and abandoned, wandered into the moors, wastelands, and fens of Wessex, moving into the marshes and woods of Somerset.” As once King David was, so too now was King Alfred cut off and betrayed by his own people. Nonetheless, he refused to abandon his kingdom as they had abandoned him. Alfred conducted a rather successful campaign of guerrilla warfare against Guthrum from his secret headquarters in the marshlands. Alfred’s resistance at this time where he was hid away in the dark, black forest of the moors engendered a Robin Hood like fame of him among the oppressed and those still loyal to the king. One biographer records the legend of “How Alfred dressed himself up as a juggler and walked openly into the camp of the Danes, who, not recognizing him and thinking he was some sort of entertainer, welcomed him into their camp and demanded that he perform. The disguised king obliged them and performed for the Viking camp for several days, delighting them thoroughly. During this time he was able to walk freely through the camp, spying out their numbers, checking on their state of readiness, and collecting all the information necessary for forming his own straggles of attack.” Such tales inspired those loyal to the throne, both peasant and noble, and discomforted those base nobles who had betrayed Alfred. During these darkest days the betrayed king used surprise attacks, secret networks of communication with nobles still loyal, spying, and surveillance to raise an army once again to face Guthrum in battle.  Alfred’s legendary example instilled a nobility and principle in the people of Wessex. Through the continued inspiration of Alfred and the persecution of the Vikings it was clear to the people that freedom would be worth fighting for. Their sense of self-rule had been reinstated by their secret king’s example of self-discipline, preparation, and retrospection. Alfred sent a secret communication summoning those loyal to battle. The secret reunion of Alfred with his loyal nobles and armies of 5,000 men in the misty forest was a spectacular moment. “It was as if the king had been restored to life after a terrible tribulation.” 

“He that wishes power to win,

First must toil to rule his mind,

That himself the slave to sin

Selfish lust may never bind:

Let him haste to put away

All that fruitless heap of care:

Cease while they sighs to-day,

And thyself from sorrow spare.

How shall he seem great or strong,

If himself he cannot save,

Word and deed against all wrong,

But to sin is still a slave?”

“Of Self-Rule” by King Alfred the Great

DELIVERANCE OF ENGLAND

King Alfred and his army of 5,000 met the Viking tyrrant, Guthrum to wage battle. The two enemies formed their respective shieldwalls and marched on each other. When they were within a short distance, both sides flew javelins into the sky destined for their enemies ranks. The silent soar of so many spears was said to blacken the sky as they slowly rose and then dove into the arms, torsos, and shields of those fateful souls in their trajectory. Both shield walls were weakened as the dead and wounded fell to the ground, quickly being replaced by those from behind. Axes were readied for the next stage of combat. At this juncture the Vikings unleashed a special force of maniacal madmen called the Berserkers. Before battle these men would conduct a heathen dancing ritual and consume a hallucinogenic mushroom turning them into a ravenous craze with the strength of wolves and beasts. They painted their faces into distorted, grotesque forms and went naked into battle. Yet now the men of Wessex remained noble to their great nobleman, King Alfred, and quickly dispensed with the demonic lives of the Berserkers, broke the Viking shieldwall, and gained the victory over Guthrum after so many long years of oppression. What Alfred was to do next though would be more marvellous to the people of Wessex than any battle victory could display. Guthrum offered total surrender to Alfred, never before had such terms been submitted by an invading Viking. Any time an English king had surrendered to a Viking no mercy was shown. The Vikings had in previous victories bound the king of East Anglia to a tree and packed his body with arrows and in Northumbria they ritually sacrificed the defeated king. If Alfred was to exact the same treatment on Guthrum which Guthrum had exacted from Alfred’s brethren, he too would be brutally executed. Alfred had been merciful before in his terms of surrender; settling for oaths, hostages, and extortion payments, but the Vikings continually break such oaths of peace. Alfred shocked all when he demanded Guthrum and his thirty best men be baptized into the Christian faith. This was no mere outward ceremony though. The medieval church believed as we do that the Christian faith was a rebirth. Alfred and the Christians of his day took this imagery seriously and incorporated many elements of the first, physical birth. As in the first, physical birth their are physical parents, so too in the second, spiritual rebirth their are spiritual parents. Consequently, at each baptism there was a man or woman who sponsored the new baptized Christian as a sort of spiritual godparent. This too was no empty ritual. To be a spiritual godparent was much the same as to be a physical parent. You accepted them into your family, your home, your wealth, influence, and power. Hence, when Alfred summoned Guthrum, his mortal enemy, to be baptized he was entering into a spiritual covenant, a spiritual adoption, and become a spiritual mentor to this viking. Guthrum accepted Alfred’s gesture and was baptized by Alfred himself. One biographer records, “Alfred treated his godson, along with Guthrum’s thirty Danish companions, to twelve days of Anglo-Saxon feastng. The Viking guests, once the mortal enemies of the Wessex throne, now sat in Alfred’s races mead hall, white-robed, banqueting on roasted boar and veinison draining horns of mead, and listening to the Saxon stop thrumming on his lyre and singing poems of the glory of long-dead warriors, mingled with lyrics of praising the most high God who had created the wonder-filled world.” Guthrum’s testimony of faith remained true to his death. In the future he refused to join viking raiders in planned attacks on Wessex, he preserved peace with Alfred, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records his death as King Alfred’s godson with no mention of his life as a Viking or his wars against Alfred. From his youth, Alfred, despite all odds against him, discipled himself in the Christian faith though he was racked in pain and misery. He discipled a disloyal, difficult, people in the Christian faith. He discipled his greatest nemesis in the Christian faith and delivered England as King David.

Thus quoth Alfred, England’s love,

‘Would ye live for God above?

Would ye long that He may show

Wiselike things for you to know,

That you may world’s worship gain,

And your souls to Christ attain?’

Wise the saying Alfred said:

‘Christ the Lord I bid thee dread

Meekly, O mine own dear friend,

Love and like him without end;

He is Lord of life and love,

Blest all other bliss above,

He is man, our Father true,

And a meek mild Master too;

Yea, our borther; yea our king;

Wise and rich in everything,

So that nought of His goo will

Shall be aught but pleasure still

To the man who Him with fear

In the world doth worship here.’

Thus quoth Alfred, our delight:

‘He may be no king of right

Under Christ, who is not filled

With book lore, in law well skilled,

Letter he must understand,

And know by what he holds his land.”

REVIVAL AND REFORMATION

Alfred sought to know by what he held the land. Having secured the deliverance of England as King David he sought as King Solomon in times of peace to retrieve the lost scholars, revive the floundering education, restore the justice system, raise the debased church, restart a broken economy, and reinstate a better currency, reinforced broken defences, retrained a new army, and rectify a new navy. Alfred understood as the native of Northumbria that the vikings were not the cause of England’s overthrow. They were the result. The result of an apostate people dwelling on formally Christian soil. He devoted himself as King Josiah to a revival of Christian learning and Christian worship. He translated several great works of Christendom into the Anglo-Saxon tongue such as The Consolation of Philosophy, Soliloquies of Augustine, Pastoral Care, and the first fifty psalms of the Bible. He also tasked the nobles to learn the scholarly Latin tongue. One biographer records, “Alfred orchestrated a tremendous revival of literacy, a revival that culminated in the greatest literary renaissance ever experienced in Anglo-Saxon Britain.” The end of literacy for Alfred was the Solomon-like, kingly virtue of wisdom. Thus any man presently holding or aspiring to office must attain this royal skill. Alfred composed the most comprehensive set of laws in his Domboc, or Book of Dooms. These would set the foundation for the English Common Law, the Magna Carta, and the legal systems of Canada, America, Australia, and New Zealand. His Domboc drew from the ten commandments and other prohibitions of Moses for sins and transgressions which would doom the nation of Israel. He applied the principles of Moses’ dooms and commandments to the nation of England. Justice was thereby established on the Bible and Law of God. “Of this one law” wrote Alfred, “a man can think, that he must judge all in justice; he needs no other book-book. He thinks that he should not judge to any man which he would not have judged to himself; if he then sought judgment over him.” Alfred’s laws were marked by the principle of restitution, and that the punishment must fit the crime. His laws insisted on keeping oaths and pledges, forbidding sedition and treason, offenders making restitution to victims, sexual morality, ending honour killings and family feuds. After twenty eight years of reigning, at the age of 50, in 899 King Alfred echoed Isaiah in his dying words to his throne heir and son.

“Thus quoth Alfred: “My dear son, come near;

Sit thou beside, and I will teach thee here.

I fell mine hour is well-nigh come, my son’

My face is white, my days are almost done:

And thou in all my state shalt stand alone:

I pray thee, for mine own dear child thou art,

Lord of this people, play their father’s part,

Be thou the orphan’s sire, the widow’s friend,

Comfort the poor man, and the weak defend;

With all thy might

Succour the right,

And be strong

Against the wrong:

And thou, my son, by law thyself restrain,

So God shall be thy Guide, and glorious Gain;

Call thou for help’s Him in every need,

And He shall give thee greatly to succeed.”

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