Alfred the Great

On a beautiful, warm and sunny Sunday morning we met under the beech tree by the bend in the River Derwent in the park.  Our worship was inspired by a man who was perhaps the greatest Briton and who possessed a very real Christian faith.

Statue of Alfred the Great in Winchester


Michael Wood describes a man who was ‘not just the greatest Briton, but one of the greatest rulers of any time or any place’.

Neil Oliver describes someone who “brought in a new age of learning. This was more than just a love of learning, but the belief that leadership entails the responsibility to be mindful of the wellbeing of the people.”

Winston Churchill wrote of Alfred: ‘In war, resolute; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimous; in peace, good will’.

Alfred the Great (871–899) is  the best-known Anglo-Saxon king. The son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex, Alfred succeeded his four older brothers to the throne in 871. At that time, Viking invaders had conquered much of England, and Alfred struggled to prevent Wessex from succumbing to the same fate. In January 878 as Wessex was being overrun by Viking invaders Alfred withdrew to the Somerset levels with  his royal bodyguard, a small army of thegns (the king’s followers).  From there he fights a desperate guerrilla war until his victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in May 878.  After the  victory he offers Guthrun and his men mercy if they will convert to Christianity and then leave Wessex.

As part of our worship we meditated on Psalm 51 and had John’s Gospel ch1 read to us. These passages were chosen because they were often used in Anglo-Saxon Christian worship.

Alfred’s achievements and qualities as king were many:

Warrior, General & military tactician.

Pragmatic, willing to compromise and pay tribute when necessary.

Guerrilla leader

Devout Christian with a very real Christian faith.

He believes himself responsible for the secular and spiritual welfare of his people.

Willingness to show mercy and compassion.

Peacemaker – makes peace treaty with Guthrun.

Makes treaties with Welsh princes.

Skilled negotiator – gets Kent and west Mercia back under Saxon rule and negotiates a partition treaty – a frontier was drawn along the Roman Watling Street, with northern and eastern England under Viking control and southern and western England under Saxon control.

Reforms the coinage.

Revives learning and literacy and education.

Makes it obligatory for all nobles and their children to learn to read and write Anglo-Saxon.

Encourages noblewomen to learn to read and write and be educated.

Set up schools so that future generations of priests and secular administrators would be better trained and educated.

Education is in Anglo-Saxon and only those going forward into holy orders are required to learn Latin.

Set up a network of fortified towns – burghs – that were no more than 20-25 miles apart and constantly garrisoned.

Reformed the fyrd, the army, made it more organised and efficient and developed a navy, along with a programme of shipbuilding.

Lawmaker – reforms Anglo-Saxon laws to make them more just, issues new laws  and incorporates some laws from the Old  Testament.

Anxious to rule his people justly, thinks judicial fairness is important and so appoints people to be judges who will apply laws justly.

Encourages trade with other parts of the British Isles and with Flanders and France.

Politically shrewd – arranges for his daughter – Aethelflaed – to marry the Ealdorman of Mercia, she becomes the Lady of Mercia and is the real power in Mercia.

Generous to the Church.

Founds monasteries.

Appoints pious, learned and trustworthy bishops and abbots to oversee the spiritual revival of Wessex and Mercia.

Orders that important Latin works are translated into Anglo-Saxon.

Patron of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Scholar and linguist – learns Latin so that he can translate Pope Gregory’s “Pastoral Care” document from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. It instructs bishops on how to teach their priests to nurture their people in the Christian faith.

It is for his valiant defence of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and west Mercia, that Alfred is known as ‘the Great’.

King Alfred dies in 899 aged 50; he is an old man, worn out through fighting for over 30 years to defend Wessex from the Vikings.

Here are Alfred’s own words written in his last year of life:

‘What I set out to do was to virtuously and justly administer the authority given to me, and to do it with wisdom, for without wisdom nothing is worthwhile. It has always been my desire to live honourably, and after my death to leave my descendants my memory in good works, for each man according to his measure of intelligence must speak what he can speak and do what he can do.’

Do you find this statement impressive – especially considering the time of writing? (AD898)

What does it mean to live virtuously?  In Philippians 4:8  Paul writes: “Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think on such things.“  With the implication in verse 9 to “put it into practice.”

What is wisdom?  Here are two dictionary definitions:  “The ability to discern or judge what is true and right.”  “To think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, and common sense.”

Consider the statement you could write about your life?

We ended our worship by sharing bread and wine using some Anglo-Saxon liturgy: bread and wine

The Priest, Deacons and Sub-Deacons, standing abreast before the Altar then take THREE STEPS BACKWARD, then THREE STEPS FORWARD,  in remembrance of the sins of thought, word and deed and of the thoughts, words and deeds which return us to grace.

And to us sinners who are your servants, grant confidence in the multitude of your mercies, and some lot and part with your Holy Apostles, Saints and Martyrs;

Paul, Peter, Patrick, John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, David, Columba, Cuthbert, Aidan, Swithun, Brendan ………..  

The invitation to receive bread and wine:

Come forth you blessed of my Father, Alleluia. 

Inherit the kingdom, prepared for you from the foundation of the world, Alleluia. 

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. 

Come forth and receive! 

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end.  Amen.  Come forth and receive! 

Share bread and wine. 

The Blessing:

May the God of Alfred

enable us

to act justly,

love mercy

and walk humbly.


We then adjourned to Cool River Cafe for Fairtrade tea and coffee, it was such a beautiful morning that we sat outside in for our drinks.