By Maureen Elizabeth Searing
Master’s Thesis, San Jose State University, 2009
Abstract: This thesis examines the application of the epithet “great” to King Alfred of Wessex (r. 871–899). It sets a standard for greatness within the context of early medieval Christian kingship, applies it to Alfred, and then compares Alfred to Charlemagne and Charles the Bald. It traces the development of the cult of Alfred from his own lifetime to the early twentieth century. It examines the mythical achievements of Alfred and how they developed, then summarizes his actual accomplishments, and compares them to the standard for greatness developed in the thesis.
The thesis concludes that within the relatively narrow confines of Anglo-Saxon England, Alfred deserves the epithet “great.” Alfred envisioned a secure, Christian, and educated Wessex during his reign, then instituted a series of reforms to achieve his goals. He left a stronger Wessex to his successors, well on the way to a united England.
Introduction: In the English town of Wantage, a statue of King Alfred of Wessex (r. 871-899) was erected in 1877 to commemorate the millenary of King Alfred’s pivotal victory over the Vikings at the Battle of Edington. Alfred’s victory had come after spending the first several months of the year hiding out in the swamps of Athelney, re-grouping his forces, gathering allies, and, if legend is to be believed, burning cakes. The statue itself depicts a pensive Alfred, the head of his battle axe on the ground, with the haft steadied by his right hand. He holds a scroll in his left hand. The statue represents both Alfred the Warrior and Alfred the Scholar and Law-giver, a view reinforced by its inscription:
Alfred found learning dead, and he restored it. Education neglected, and he revived it. The laws powerless, and he gave them force. The Church debased, and he raised it. The land ravaged by a fearful enemy, from which he delivered it. Alfred’s name shall live as long as mankind respects the past.