Article

Alfred the Great

Paul E. Szarmach

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0001
Alfred the Great

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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The only English monarch to earn the epithet “Great” and who was esteemed highly by the later Victorians who considered him something of a philosopher-king, Alfred (b. 849–d. 899; r. 871–899), King of Wessex, was the youngest son of Æthelwulf. Four elder brothers were ahead in the line, but Alfred survived them all. When a young child visiting Rome, Alfred received some sort of investiture amounting to an anointing to kingship, or so the court biographer Asser would have us believe. In his early years as king, Alfred had to contend with the Vikings, whose Great Army had landed in 865. Alfred lost many a battle until he took refuge in the Athelney marshes from which he conducted guerrilla-like raids on his enemies. Alfred was victorious at the battle of Edington (878), which led to an agreement whereby the Viking chief Guthrum took baptism with Alfred as his sponsor and agreed to leave Wessex. Thereafter, Alfred consolidated his rule, especially with the Mercians, and strengthened it with a system of forts, thus effectively preparing himself for the return of the Vikings in the 890s. This time the Vikings were defeated. Alfred’s ultimate military and political successes received their complement in his program of Christian culture, outlined in the Preface to the Old English Pastoral Care, where he cited books “most needful for men to know” in a series of translations. This royal position paper would seem to stand behind the remarkable flowering of translations still generally associated with his reign. Although some of these translations can be traced to Alfred’s own hand, others would seem to take their broad inspiration from his cultural program or at least were preserved by it. In uniting cultural concerns with military-political considerations, Alfred prospered in “wig and wisdom” (“fighting and wisdom,” or “sapientia et fortitudo”). When Alfred first used the phrase in the Preface, he applied it to his forebears; clearly, he was projecting his own concerns.

Article.  8879 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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