Thinking Your Way Through a Labyrinth of Contemporary Issues
The Anglo-Saxons (who founded what is now England) were Germanic immigrants themselves to British shores. The most famous of the Anglo-Saxon rulers was Alfred of Wessex, known as ‘The Great’. These descendants of Germanic immigrants became heavily embroiled in a deadly struggle to hold onto the English culture, language and values in the face of another set of Germanic immigrants, a well-armed and organised mass of Scandinavian opportunists who had a particular taste for the politics of war-play. These Danes had invaded with a seriously large army, playing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms off against each other, conquering and installing puppet rulers. Some English Lords and kings had escaped to exile, yet it was Alfred of Wessex who, although cripplingly battered and bruised by Danish incursions into his territory, managed to hold on to power, endure defeats and misery to make an incredible re-entry into the fray against the Danes, taking them by surprize and knocking them onto the back foot.
Alfred secretly rebuilt his forces whilst cleverly maintaining communication with his subjects, fighting a Guerrilla campaign from the marshes at Athelney in Somerset. These events, most recently brought to light in the BBC series The Last Kingdom provide a great story, particularly the journey of Alfred, the man with the odds stacked against him, who manages as ‘phoenix from the flames’ to endure, gather his forces, gain momentum and turn the tables on his enemy. Such an amazing story has helped make Alfred The Great an English hero, perhaps one which the English have forgotten existed, and would do well to re-ignite his memory, particularly regarding our current search for a national identity and purpose in a new and globalised world.
According to Michael Wood’s 1981 series In Search of The Dark Ages, Alfred was the man who “saved the essential English-ness of our culture and language”. He translated key literature from Latin into English and distributed it amongst parishes, understanding the importance of literacy for governing what was the beginnings of a state. Wood goes further, describing Alfred as “A far-sighted man capable of long-term reforms”. Alfred came back from the brink after an apocalyptic Viking invasion, biding his time and eventually turning the tables on a terrible adversary.
Other scholars of notoriety have also praised Alfred. Ryan Lavelle the historical advisor to BBC drama The Last Kingdom describes Alfred as a ruler who successfully used negotiation and compromise with the Danes and realised the need for flexibility on both sides. Lavelle further tells of Alfred’s notoriety for winning battles against the Danes and the re-gaining of an England on the cusp of Viking over-haul (2015).
Further to this, Lavelle does stress that the situation in Alfred’s England as a bit more complex than simply the English giving the Danish ‘foreigner’ a bit of a kick in the teeth. Many Danes and other Vikings had agreements, deals and loyalties with Alfred and of course many Danes were settled in England and quite prepared to cut deals with powerful Anglo-Saxon Lords and Kings. It seems Alfred was a thoughtful and inclusive ruler who could practice patience when the omens looked bad. He knew how to get out of a sticky situation as he did with the mortal Viking threat. He played his cards close to his chest, and didn’t hesitate to strike when the iron was hot!
Alfred was certainly a leader of renown, referred to by Frank Stenton in 1943 as “the most effective ruler who had appeared in Western Europe since the death of Charlemagne” and by Michael Wood in the 2013 BBC series King Alfred and the Anglo-saxons as “one of the greatest rulers of any time or place”. Stenton’s epic Anglo-Saxon England provides detail on Alfred’s reign. Alfred not just queried and showed curiosity over questions of fate, free will, and the ways man can become knowledgeable, but actually deployed political capital into the search for answers and the ways in which he could promote learning amongst his subjects (1943).
Alfred bravely, yet gently and astutely oversaw the genesis of what was to become England, of which the Danes were very much an integral part, something which we perhaps tend to forget or are simply ignorant of, to our own detriment.
Tom Bone – March 2016