Alfred the Great:
War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England
By Richard Abels
Addison Wesley Longman, 373 pp, 1998
I've already explained my admiration for
King Alfred the Great, who ruled the English kingdom of Wessex from 871
until his death in 899. He was a great man, a great king, a great warrior,
a scholar, and lover of learning.
You may have already read my review
of another book about Alfred, this one by David Sturdy, which I didn't
like very much. It told me little about Alfred that I didn't already know,
and was quite boring. Thankfully, Richard Abels, a Professor of History at
the U.S. Naval Academy, has produced a fine, comprehensive, and insightful
account of Alfred, the only English king to be called Great.
Abels examines the entire historical
record to paint a balanced portrait of Alfred. The king was a classic
warrior-scholar, familiar with ancient Latin texts and battlefield
strategies. He considered his kingship, and the monarchy in general, as
divinely inspired and blessed by God himself. In return for this awesome
privilege and responsibility, the king had a duty to pursue and rule with
wisdom. Alfred treated his subjects fairly, and by all accounts was
generally admired by the populace.
He faced several challenges - Viking
raids, rebellious-minded nephews, lack of education throughout the kingdom
- and at least attempted to solve them all. He defeated the Vikings and
prevented them from conquering all of Britain. He and a team of scholars
translated Latin texts into English, then old English, which looks like a
foreign language to us. He built a system of defensive sites, known as
burhs, which proved their worth in the Viking raids in the 890s.
I could go on and on about Alfred, and
this book. Abels writes well, critically examines each source, and tells
us if one is suspect. Where the record is unclear or non-existent, he
offers educated and plausible explanations.
This is, by far, the best book about
Alfred and his times I have read.