Table of Contents:
2. The Life of King Alfred the Great
2.1 Biographical Information
2.2 King Alfred’s Educational Background
3. King Alfred’s Educational Reform
3.1 The Pursuit of Wisdom
3.2 King Alfred’s Scholars
4. King Alfred’s Translation Program
4.1 King Alfred’s Writing
4.2 Works by King Alfred’s Scholarly Team
4.3 Works Produced During King Alfred’s Reign
King Alfred, who ruled the kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899, is the only English King, who came to be known as the Great. Today he is remembered and glorified as a great Christian king, who defeated the Vikings, who kept invading and plundering England in the second half of the 9th century. But apart from great military and political achievements, Alfred also stands for educational reform and he is credited for having encouraged the advancement of the Old English language in what was to become the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
What scholars know about Alfred and his actions today is mostly derived from four different sources. Most important is a biography of King Alfred called The Life of King Alfred. This text was written in 893 by Asser, a contemporary of the king. In this biography Asser states that he used to be a monk at St David’s, a monastery in Dyfed in Wales, until King Alfred asked him to serve as one of his scholars and advisors. The biography deals with King Alfred’s life starting with his birth, but ending abruptly, leaving out the king’s actions in the 890s and his death. When dealing with Asser’s biography of King Alfred, it is important to keep in mind that the text is not an objective and accurate work, but rather a “celebration of Alfred’s greatness for the edification of multiple audiences”.
The second source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was written by one or more anonymous authors. This text deals with the political and military developments during Alfred’s reign and it contains some information about the king himself. The origin of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and its role within the Alfredian translation program will be dealt with later in this work.
The third source is the texts from King Alfred’s translation program, which were a very important part of his educational reforms. The translation program is a topic that has caused many debates among scholars as will be seen in the course of this work. However, the different writings of King Alfred and the scholars at his court provide a lot of useful information on the king’s thoughts and plans.
Lastly, coins and archaeology provide important information about King Alfred the Great and his times as well.
Since there are quite a lot of contradictory sources providing information on the life of King Alfred the Great, scholars have created quite different and controversial pictures of one and the same historical figure. Presenting a complete overview of relevant works would go beyond the scope of this work, so I will focus on just a few standard works.
In the following I shall be concerned with a king, who “was […] voraciously devoted to learning and believed that to be worthy of rule one must seek wisdom”. In order to present a detailed overview of his achievements in education policy, I will provide a short biography of King Alfred and the historical context of his reign before moving on to his educational background and the different aspects of the king’s educational reforms.
2. The Life of King Alfred the Great:
2.1 Biographical Information:
According to his biographer Asser, Alfred was born in 849 at Wantage in Berkshire as the youngest son of King Æthelwulf and his wife Osburh. When he was four, he was sent to Rome, where he was welcomed by Pope Leo IV. He also stayed at the Carolingian court, which aroused his interest in Frankish affairs. Alfred is said to have remained illiterate during his youth, but he knew many psalms and prayers by heart and always kept a little book with him, which contained his favourite passages.
When Alfred came to the throne in 871, he had to face the Vikings, who were attacking Wessex and the other kingdoms again and again. King Alfred tried to appease the invaders by making agreements with them and by paying them off. In January 878, however, he had to flee to Athelney in the Somerset marshes, where he hid until May. When the king had left his hideout, he fought the Vikings at Edington in Wiltshire and finally his enemies had to capitulate. Their leader Guthrum was baptized and in the Treaty of Wedmore Alfred and Guthrum established the so called Danelaw, which allowed the Vikings to settle in a large area north of a boundary stretching roughly from London to the northern tip of Wales. In the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum this boundary is defined as follows: “First concerning our boundaries: up the Thames, and then up the Lea, and along the Lea to its source, then in a straight line to Bedford, then up the Ouse to Watling Street”.
The Treaty of Wedmore forced the Vikings to abandon Wessex, so the kingdom was spared further attacks during the 880s. During this time of peace, King Alfred had time to take care of military, political and educational reforms. He established numerous burghs, fortifications and cities throughout southern England to strengthen his kingdom’s military power. In the 880s and in the beginning of the 890s the king also devoted a lot of time to the advancement of learning and to his translation program, which will be dealt with in greater detail later in this work.
In 892 the Vikings returned to England, but this time “the English could draw on the resources of the countryside for sustenance and reinforcements, and were able therefore to maintain constant and relentless pressure on the enemy” and in 896 the Vikings either settled peacefully in the Danelaw or returned to the continent. This event is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as follows: “Then afterwards, in the summer of this year, the Viking army dispersed, some into East Anglia, some into Northumbria; and those who were without property got themselves ships and went south across the sea to the Seine”. For the time being, Alfred the Great had managed to drive away the Vikings. He died on October 26, 899.
Most of the biographical information on King Alfred the Great can be found in Asser’s Life of King Alfred. In this context it is important to mention that some scholars doubt the reliability of Asser’s descriptions. Among them is A. P. Smyth, who is convinced that the Life of King Alfred is a late medieval forgery. He stresses the importance of the men, whose writings Alfred translated: “We can certainly learn more of Alfred through the writings of these men than we can ever hope to know about the king from the Pseudo-Asser or from William of Malmesbury”.
Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, however, think that “the case against the authenticity of Asser’s Life of King Alfred does not stand up to scrutiny, and any lingering doubts should be laid peacefully to rest”. Although Smyth’s findings are more up to date, it is hard to determine whether his theory on the Pseudo-Asser is more plausible than Keynes and Lapidge’s, who are convinced that Asser himself wrote the biography in 893. In any case, Asser’s text is a valuable source for every study on King Alfred’s life.
2.2 King Alfred’s Educational Background:
Alfred’s biographer Asser states that Alfred the Great “remained ignorant of letters until his twelfth year, or even longer” although “it ha[d] been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else […], which ha[d] characterized the nature of his noble mind”. However, Asser points out that Alfred used to listen to and memorize poems which were read to him by others. Later in his work Asser claims that King Alfred remained illiterate throughout much of his life until 11 November 887: “It was also in this year that Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, first began through divine inspiration to read [Latin] and to translate at the same time, all on one and the same day”. This statement has led scholars to passionate debates on the process of Alfred’s education.
Keynes and Lapidge suggest that Alfred learned to read English around 860, because Asser claims that Alfred gave “instruction in all virtuous behaviour and tutelage in literacy” to the nobles’ children. According to Keynes and Lapidge, the king only knew how to read English until 887, but then he finally learned how to read and translate Latin with the help of his clerical advisors. Richard Abels agrees with Keynes and Lapidge and he stresses that Alfred the Great was by no means completely illiterate before 887. Probably the king was able to read the vernacular and maybe he knew the basics of Latin, but it was not until 887, the year mentioned by Asser, that he could actually understand and translate Latin works, which was an essential prerequisite for instructing others.
A. P. Smyth, however, is convinced that Asser, whom he only calls the Pseudo-Asser, is unreliable. According to Smyth, Asser’s information on Alfred’s education cannot be taken seriously and the scholar believes that Alfred knew Latin much earlier than 887, because he was tutored by his mother and other teachers from his childhood on. Smyth suggests that the king knew the original Latin texts long before he translated them into the vernacular.
Only the discovery of new Alfredian documents might solve this scholarly debate. At the current state of research it is hard to determine when exactly Alfred learned to read the vernacular and when he learned Latin. Yet, one can be sure that he learned to read and translate Latin texts at some point in his life and probably he acquired this knowledge with the help of the clerical scholars that he had hired for his educational reform program.
3. King Alfred’s Educational Reform:
3.1 The Pursuit of Wisdom:
As mentioned above, Alfred devoted a lot of time to educational reform in times of peace. In order to understand the king’s devotion to the advancement of learning, it is important to know his world view and his ideology.
To King Alfred, the Vikings’ attacks were a “punishment for the moral failings of the English people”. In the prose preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis he stated that he wanted to restore peace and morality in England by translating Latin texts into English: “[W]e also should turn into the language that we can all understand some books, which may be most necessary for all men to know”.
He thought as a Christian king and dutiful ruler it was his duty to revive learning in his kingdom, which had, according to Alfred himself, been a place where the kings “upheld peace and morals and authority at home, and also extended their territory abroad and […] they prospered both in warfare and wisdom”. He thought that a good king had to acquire wisdom, which required pragmatic skills and moral virtue. Alfred was convinced that it was his duty to be wise himself and to teach this wisdom to his bishops and nobles. To him this was the only way to restore peace and morality in England.
In order to return to happier times, he hired clerical scholars from Mercia, Wales and the continent and he established a court school for his own and the nobles’ children. As announced in his preface to the Cura Pastoralis, Alfred translated Latin works into the vernacular and distributed them among his bishops. In addition, he probably encouraged the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and he issued a law code. Alfred the Great believed that he derived his power from God and that he was accountable for his actions before God. That is why he felt responsible for restoring the Christian faith and for reviving learning in order to prevent the downfall of his kingdom. “Alfred’s ultimate responsibility was the pastoral care of his people”.
The king also personally loved learning. He was very intelligent and he wanted to acquire new knowledge all the time. So Alfred’s pursuit of wisdom had political, ideological and personal reasons. He was convinced that the attacks by the pagans and the weakness of the English language were responsible for the ruin of the Christian faith. This implies that Alfred did not blame the Vikings for the decline of learning. In his opinion they were sent by God to remind the English people of their moral failings and their neglect of the Christian faith. According to the king, wisdom and knowledge were the only means to end this plight.
3.2 King Alfred’s Scholars:
King Alfred wanted to restore learning in his kingdom, but he thought that there were no capable scholars in Wessex, so he turned to Mercia, Wales and even abroad to find clerical advisors for his court. In his preface to the Cura Pastoralis Alfred claimed that “there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could apprehend their services in English or even translate a letter from Latin into English, and [he thought] that there were not many beyond the Humber”.
Most scholars agree that this statement is an exaggeration for propagandistic purposes, but there are also some historical facts, which support Alfred’s claim. Abels points out that manuscript production was declining around 860 and that many valuable documents were destroyed by the Vikings. In addition, surviving charters prove that scribes had a very poor command of the Latin language. So, although Alfred the Great might have exaggerated in his preface, he certainly had every reason to look for talented scholars outside of Wessex.
Alfred’s biographer Asser provides a list with the names of the scholars, whom the king recruited from Mercia. This list includes Wærferth, the bishop of Worcester, Plegmund, who would later become the archbishop of Canterbury, and the priests Ætehlstan and Wærwulf. Asser claims that these scholars had to read books to the king all the time, because Alfred “could never tolerate being without one or other of them”.
 Richard, Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Harlow, 1998), p. 12.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 23.
 Simon, Keynes/Michael, Lapidge, Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and
other contemporary sources (London 1983), p. 13f.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, pp. 18-23.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 171.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, pp. 23-41.
 Keynes7Lapidge, Alfred, p. 43.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 118.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, pp. 41-44.
 Alfred P. Smyth, King Alfred the Great (Oxford 1995), p. 530.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 51.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 75.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 99.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 91.
 Keynes, Lapidge, Alfred, p. 239.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 225f.
 Smyth, King Alfred, p. 248.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 219.
 Dorothy, Whitelock, “The Old English prose and verse prefaces to King Alfred’s translation of Gregory’s ‘Pastoral Care’ (890-895)”, English Historical Documents c. 500-1042, second ed. (London, 1979) p. 889.
 Whitelock, English, p. 888.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 255.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 220.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 221.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 224.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 226f.
 Whitelock, English, p. 888.
 Smyth, King Alfred, 549f. and Abels, Alfred, p. 227.
 Abels, Alfred, p. 228.
 Keynes/Lapidge, Alfred, p. 93.