Throughout history, many monarchs of one sort or another have gained the appellation ‘the Great’ — Alexander the Great, Charlemagne (who assumed ‘the Great’ into his name!), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and, in some circles, Constantine the Great (the only other monarch to have been saint of the week).
What makes Alfred, King of Wessex (lived 849-899, reigned 871-899) great? Well, he drove a Viking army into the Danelaw and got their ruler to convert to Christianity and settle down. He also kept the Vikings out of England. He united the various English kingdoms under his rule. He established a system of burhs, fortified towns throughout his kingdom where all ablebodied men learned archery for the defence of England from Vikings. He started the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
All of these things and more make Alfred a great king. And, certainly, striving to be good at your earthly calling is part of being a Christian, whether monarch or missionary, clerk or cleric, artist or apostle. But, fascinating as these parts of the Life of King Alfred are, they are not what made King Alfred, who is commemorated tomorrow, this week’s saint.
As famously related by Asser, King Alfred when a young boy did not know how to read or write, but spent his hours listening to the songs and tales of the Anglo-Saxon tongue in the court at Winchester. When he was twelve (I believe), his mother made a contest between him and his brothers, that whoever could memorise a book of poems could keep it. Alfred did so.
Although he undoubtedly learned the Anglo-Saxon tongue shortly thereafter, he did not come to his knowledge of the Latin language until 30 years of age. As king, he felt that it was a shame how learning had decreased in his kingdom — Anglo-Saxons had once been at the forefront of learning in Europe, in the age of Bede (saint of the week here). Probably a bit awestruck by all he had seen on the Carolingian mainland as a child and in the eternal city of Rome as well, he wanted to see learning flourish in England again.
Therefore, Alfred set about ensuring that the clergy of his kingdom were all literate. He also set about translating and ensuring translatin by others from Latin those works he felt most important, including his own introductions. Most famously, he translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.
This latter may have been provoked by his esteem of the Roman see because of his visits there as well as Gregory’s having sent Augustine (saint of the week here) as a missionary to Canterbury. However, we should also note that the Pastoral Care is also one of the only works from the Latin Fathers to have been widely translated and disseminated throughout the Greek world. That is to say, it was world classic of Christian thought as well as being of practical value for Alfred’s clergy.
Now, to say that Alfred’s organisation of learning and translation throughout his kingdom was a particularly Christian thing to do is not to say that no pagan monarch ever did such a thing (see the Ptolemies at Alexandria), but I still think it a more noticeably Christian action than the defence from attack. Christianity has always been a religion of the book, and so learning has always been held in high esteem by all Christians — at least basic literacy, even amongst some anti-intellectual Franciscans.
In later centuries, it would be Christians like John Knox who would promote universal education on this island. I believe that King Alfred, although his emphasis was on clergy and nobility, stands within that same Christian tradition of education. Furthermore, the Christianness of his translations is further proof of how Alfred is engaged in the task of educating as a Christian king — we have Boethius and Gregory, not Virgil and Horace here, after all.
For More on Alfred and Anglo-Saxons
Besides Asser’s Life of King Alfred, check out the following:
Alfred the Great, ed. and trans. Simon Keynes. This Penguin Classic includes Asser’s Life as well as relevant selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various documents illustrating the reign of King Alfred, including some of his own writings.
The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland. This anthology includes not only the complete Beowulf in Crossley-Holland’s translation but a variety of Anglo-Saxon and Latin documents from the Anglo-Saxon world, both Christian and secular, poetry and prose.
Anglo-Saxon Christianity by Paul Cavill discusses Christianity in Britain in the days of the Anglo-Saxons, showing the union of Mediterranean religious values and ‘Germanic’ cultural traditions that occurred here in those days long ago.
BBC History website about the Anglo-Saxons, 410-800. This site includes discussions of Christianity.