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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Alfred the Great

By David Sturdy
Constable and Company Limited, 268 pp, 1995

Most people I speak to have heard nothing of Alfred the Great, which is a shame. He was a great man, indeed, the only English to king to receive the title “Great.” It was richly deserved.

Alfred was king of the English kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. During his reign, he repelled the Vikings from Wessex, the last kingdom to withstand the Danish onslaught. He restored monasteries to their former glory. He constructed defenses around strategic towns, including London, many of which are visible today. Perhaps most importantly, he and a Dream Team of scholars translated several important historical and religious texts from Latin to English, making them accessible to the common peasant. Many historians feel strongly that Alfred not only saved the English from permanent Danish occupation, but also saved the English language from possible extinction.

It would have been nice if David Sturdy had mentioned some of this in his book. Instead, Sturdy approached Alfred by examining deeds, grants and charters, analyzing the signees and trying to get an idea of who was who among Alfred’s governors and advisors. So, while we learned that Osric, a close relative of Alfred on his mother’s side, may have been Alfred’s commander-in-chief of the household guards or chief-of-staff to the king, that doesn’t tell us much about Alfred himself.

Sturdy relied heavily on The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for his historical narratives, a newspaper-like scroll started sometime during Alfred’s reign and appearing periodically until the Norman Conquest. However, The Chronicle, while a treasure trove of information about England and Europe in the late 800s and 900s, isn’t always reliable.

I was ultimately disappointed by the book, since I was looking for more information about Alfred, rather than obscure ministers and chiefs-of-staff. However, I someday will write a novel, or perhaps even a trilogy, about Alfred, and this book would make a handy resource.

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