Saint of the Day – 26 October – Saint Alfred the Great (849-899) King of Wessex, Confessor, Scholar, Writer and Translator, negotiator. He administered justice with insight and fairness, protected the poor, and encouraged art and the crafts. He tried in all that he did, to rule as a model Christian King. For all this, he alone among the rulers of England is called “the Great.”
Born in the year 849 in the Royal Saxon Palace at Wantage, in what is now Berkshire, the youngest of five sons of King Æthelwulf,
Alfred spent his life in a time of “battle, murder and sudden death” during the Danish invasions and settlement in Britain.
On a pilgrimage to Rome at the age of four, Alfred was blessed by Pope Leo IV, an event that deeply impressed the young Saxon boy. Two years later he witnessed his father’s marriage to a young Princess of the Frankish court. Following the death of his father and the brief reigns of his brothers, Alfred became King of the West Saxons (the Kingdom of Wessex) in 871. At the time, the pagan Danes had gained control of large part of eastern and southern England and were harrying the eastern coasts, burning Churches and Monasteries and killing the inhabitants.
Despite many setbacks against the Danes, Alfred never despaired and in time, he was able to drive the Danes from Wessex, saving his Kingdom and subjects from death and despoliation. He was generous to the defeated Danish Leader Guthrum, persuading him to accept Baptism and to recognise the boundaries between the Danish holdings and Wessex.
In his later years, Alfred sought to repair the damage done by the Danish invasions to the culture and learning of his Kingdom, especially among the Parish clergy. On the earlier model of Charlemagne’s school at Aachen, he founded a Palace school that was unrivaled in northern Europe at the time. He not only encouraged men of learning but he laboured himself and gave proof of his own learning. He translated into Anglo-Saxon: “The Consolation of Philosophy” of Boëthius; “The History of the World” of Orosius; the “Ecclesiastical History” of Bede, and the “Pastoral Rule” and the “Dialogues” of St. Gregory the Great. The “Consolation of Philosophy” he not only translated but adapted, adding much of his own. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”, the record of the English race from the earliest time, was inspired by him.
He is generally credited with establishing trial by jury, the law of “frank-pledge,”(an Anglo-Saxon legal system in which units composed of ten households were formed, in each of which members were held responsible for one another’s conduct) and many other institutions which were rather, the development of national customs of long standing. He is represented as the Founder of Oxford, a claim which some recent research wishes to disprove. But ,even the elimination of the legendary from Alfred’s history does not, in any way, diminish his greatness, so much is there of actual, recorded achievement to his credit. His own estimate of what he did for the regeneration of England is modest, beside the authentic history of his deeds.
He endeavoured, he tells us, to gather all that seemed good in the old English laws and adds: -“I durst not venture much of mine own to set down, for I knew not what should be approved by those who came after us.” Not only did he codify and promulgate laws but he looked, too, to their enforcement, and insisted that justice should be dispensed ,without fear or favour. He devoted his energies to restoring, what had been destroyed, by the long wars with the invaders. Monasteries were rebuilt and founded and learned men brought from other lands. He brought Archbishop Plegmund and Bishop Wetfrith from Mercia; Grimbold and John the Old-Saxon from other Teutonic lands; Asser, John Scotus Erigena and many others.
In one of the works prepared at his direction, he wrote, “He seemed to me, a very foolish man and very wretched, who will not increase his understanding while he is in the world and ever with and long to reach that endless life, where all shall be made clear.”