Alfred the Great of Wessex is one of my heroes. I imprinted young, with the book by Alf Mapp, The Golden Dragon. The book is for kids, and is hagiographic, but it’s hard to diminish just what Alfred managed to do. I returned to him in grad school, when I read a historical fantasy novel based on his life. That got me looking for academic biographies, and I found one. Wow. Justin Pollard’s Alfred the Great draws on Alfred’s own writings, the biographies written at the time, and draws in archaeology and other things to paint the picture of someone who refused to quit, even though his own body often failed him at times of stress.* There’s a very good reason he is the only monarch in English and British history to be called “the Great.”
He also inspired the epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton. The theme is preserving and holding. How do you preserve culture, an almost lost past, faith, against the onslaughts of time and Vikings? Dogged determination and a flash of genius, with emphasis on the dogged determination. Alfred shouldn’t have lived long enough to take the throne, let alone reorganize the Saxon lands, set up schools, translate great works of philosophy into Anglo-Saxon with his own notes, found a navy, and defeat the Vikings a few times. His medical condition probably should have killed him 20 years or so before hard living finally did get to him.
I was reminded of all this this past week, while watching a program on PBS about finding evidence of the Great Pagan Army (as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle phrased it) in Mercia, the kingdom north of Sussex, Wessex, and Kent. The story centered on a grave near Repton. Repton had been the capital of Mercia, and the crypt of the little church there has one of the very, very few surviving pieces of early Romanesque churches in England. The Vikings came in, ran other people out, and settled. They also brought the bodies of chieftains killed elsewhere and buried them at Repton to show that they too had a claim to the importance and power of the site.
The archaeology and forensics were great. The central deceased, well, whoever he was fighting (the Scots, as it turns out) made darn sure he was dead and stayed that way. The war-ax blow to the upper right femur almost cut the bone through, and severed the blood vessels as well as removing his… Ahem. Once he was down, someone jammed a spear-blade up under the visor of his helmet, through the top of the orbit and eyebrow ridge, all the way to the back of his skull. As the pathologist put it, “It is unlikely he survived more than a few seconds.” As I said, someone did not want to have to deal with him again. His followers got the body, carried it all the way south to Repton, and replaced what they could so he’d be able to enjoy Valhalla. Yes, tried to replace that too. A wild boar tusk. [Remember, keep all comments PG-13].
The Vikings romped and stomped, and settled. Part of it was they needed land and some had come to England for that purpose. Part of it, which the TV program didn’t talk about, was due to Alfred the Great’s efforts.
*We’ll never know, but the symptoms described by Alfred’s biographer (and chaplain) sound very much like Crohn’s Disease. That it flared up in times of stress, made him unable to eat much, and caused other afflictions fits the pattern. Again, we’ll never know for certain.