Friday, September 23, 2005

Alfred the Great

I've been slowly working my way through Simon Schama's book The History of Britain Vol. 1, based on the video series of the same name. It's a great read, but one episode in particular has really grabbed my interest.

Ever heard of Alfred the Great? Neither had I but this guy's story is the kind of stuff Mel Gibson makes movies about. So Mel, if you should stumble across this post, get busy! There are tons of resources online to find out about Alfred, so I'll just give you the executive summary.

Alfred the Great (849-899 AD) is the only English monarch ever to be given the title "the Great" by his people. As a young man Alfred had wanted to become a priest and a scholar but that wasn't to be. As Britain became overrun with Danes (Vikings) who subjugated the native Britains to slave hood, Alfred's father king Aethelred of Wessex, the only remaining independent kingdom, decided to fight rather than try to negotiate like so many other kings had done - to their own ruin (Vikings didn't make very trustworthy negotiating partners!)

The Danes were temporarily defeated, but in the battle, king Aethelred was killed, leaving Alfred's brother Ethelred as king. Ethelred died a short time later, however, and Alfred became king of Wessex at the age of 21. When the Vikings invaded in early 878 the people of Wessex were devastated and Alfred was forced to live in a swamp with a few of his remaining men. From this swamp, they would slip into town for food and supplies as they made preparations to battle the Danes once again. One great story has Alfred getting chewed out by a peasant woman, who was unaware of his identity, for burning some cakes on a fire. From Wikipedia: "Preoccupied with the problems of the kingdom, Alfred let the cakes burn, and was taken to task by the woman on her return. Upon realizing the king's identity, the woman apologized profusely, but Alfred insisted that he was the one who needed to apologize. The thought that Alfred, during his retreat at Athelney, was a helpless fugitive rests upon the legend of the cakes. In truth, he was organizing victory. ”Truly, an officer and a gentleman!

At this same time, Alfred had disguised himself as a harpist and snuck into the Viking camp to discover their plans! When the two armies met at the Battle of Edington in 879, Alfred and his army won a decisive victory. Not only did he defeat the Viking king Guthrum, but Guthrum converted to Christianity and lived out the rest of his days as a farmer in East Anglia.

From the website of the British Monarchy: "By stopping the Viking advance and consolidating his territorial gains, Alfred had started the process by which his successors eventually extended their power over the other Anglo-Saxon kings; the ultimate unification of Anglo-Saxon England was to be led by Wessex. It is for his valiant defence of his kingdom against a stronger enemy, for securing peace with the Vikings and for his farsighted reforms in the reconstruction of Wessex and beyond, that Alfred - alone of all the English kings and queens - is known as 'the Great'."

What a great story! I can't believe no one has made a movie out of this!!

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James said...

Brooke loves Simon Schama, and the show is great, but his voice drives us both nuts. He tries to be so dramatic, but he just sounds odd.

Great entry, though. History is fascinating!

Brad said...

I've just seen the show once but I agree, it's difficult to listen to him. Great series though!