Addenda to Alfred the Great


Alfred the Scholar

According to his biographer, Asser, Alfred was born at Wantage in 849.[*] Asser writes:

He was extraordinarily beloved by both his father and mother, and indeed by all the people, beyond all his brothers; in inseparable companionship with them he was reared at the royal court. As he advanced through the years of infancy and youth, he appeared more comely in person than his brothers, as in countenance, speech, and manners he was more pleasing than they. His noble birth and noble nature implanted in him from his cradle a love of wisdom above all things, even amid all the occupations of this present life; but – with shame be it spoken! – by the unworthy neglect of his parents and governors he remained illiterate until his 12th year, or even longer, though by day and night he was an attentive listener to the Saxon [i.e. English] poems which he often heard recited, and, being apt at learning, kept them in his memory…
Now on a certain day his mother was showing him and his brothers a book of Saxon poetry, which she held in her hand, and finally said: “Whichever of you can soonest learn this volume, to him will I give it.”  Stimulated by these words, or rather by divine inspiration, and allured by the beautifully illuminated letter at the beginning of the volume, Alfred spoke before all his brothers, who, though his seniors in age, were not so in grace, and answered his mother: “Will you really give that book to that one of us who can first understand and repeat it to you?”  At this his mother smiled with satisfaction, and confirmed what she had before said: “Yes,” said she, “that I will.”  Upon this the boy took the book out of her hand, and went to his master and learned it by heart, whereupon he brought it back to his mother and recited it.
After this he learned the ‘daily course’, that is, the celebration of the hours, and afterwards certain Psalms, and many prayers. He collected these in one book, which he kept day and night in his bosom, as I myself have seen, and always carried about with him, for the sake of prayer, through all the bustle and business of this present life. But, sad to relate, he could not gratify his ardent wish to acquire liberal art, because, as he was wont to say, there were at that time no good teachers in all the kingdom of the West Saxons.
He used to assert, with many lamentations and with sighs from the bottom of his heart, that among all the difficulties and impediments of this present life, this was the greatest, namely, that when he was young and had leisure and capacity for learning, he had no masters; but when he was more advanced in years, he was continually occupied, not to say harassed, day and night, by so many diseases unknown to all the physicians of this island,[*] as well as by the domestic and foreign anxieties of sovereignty, and by the invasions of pagans by land and sea, that though he then had some store of teachers and writers, it was quite impossible for him to study. But yet among the impediments of this present life, from childhood to the present day (and, as I believe, even until his death), he has continued to feel the same insatiable desire.[*]
Vita Alfredi §§22–25

Presumably Alfred’s mother was dead by 856, since his father took a new wife in that year. Many years later, probably in the early-880s, King Alfred summoned scholars from beyond Wessex to his court:

… Wærferth, bishop of the church of Worcester, a man well versed in divine Scripture, who, by the king’s command, was the first to translate with clearness and elegance the books of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory and Peter, his disciple, from Latin into the Saxon language, sometimes putting sense for sense; then Plegmund, a Mercian by birth, archbishop of the church of Canterbury [but not until 890], a venerable man, endowed with wisdom; besides Athelstan and Wærwulf, learned priests and chaplains, Mercians by birth. These four King Alfred had called to him from Mercia, and he exalted them with many honours and powers in the kingdom of the West Saxons, in addition to those which Archbishop Plegmund and Bishop Wærferth had in Mercia. By the teaching and wisdom of all these the king’s desire increased continually, and was gratified. Day and night, whenever he had any leisure, he commanded such men as these to read [Latin] books to him – for he never allowed himself to be without one of them – so that he came to possess a knowledge of almost every book, though by himself he could not yet understand anything from books, since he had not yet begun to read anything.
But since the king’s commendable avarice could not be gratified even in this, he sent messengers beyond sea to Gaul to procure teachers. From there he summoned Grimbald, priest and monk, a venerable man and excellent singer, learned in every kind of ecclesiastical discipline and in Holy Scripture, and adorned with all virtues; and also John, likewise priest and monk, a man of the keenest intellect, learned in all branches of literature, and skilled in many other arts. By the teaching of these men the king’s mind was greatly enlarged, and he enriched and honoured them with much power.
At that time [about 885] I also was summoned by the king, and came to Wessex [Saxonia] from the western and furthest parts of Wales [Britannia] …
Vita Alfredi §§77–79

Asser asserts that, in 887:

… the oft-mentioned Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, by divine inspiration first began, on one and the same day, to read [Latin] and to translate; but that this may be clearer to those who are ignorant, I will relate the cause of this long delay in beginning.
On a certain day we were both of us sitting in the king’s chamber, talking on all kinds of subjects, as usual, and it happened that I read to him a quotation out of a certain book. While he was listening to it attentively with both ears, and pondering it deeply with his inmost mind, he suddenly showed me a little book which he carried in his bosom, wherein were written the ‘daily course’, together with certain Psalms and prayers which he had read in his youth, and thereupon bade me write the quotation in that book. Hearing this, and perceiving in part his active intelligence and goodness of heart, together with his devout resolution of studying divine wisdom, I gave, though in secret, yet with hands uplifted to heaven, boundless thanks to Almighty God, who had implanted such devotion to the study of wisdom in the king’s heart. But since I could find no blank space in that book wherein to write the quotation, it being all full of various matters, I delayed a little, chiefly that I might stir up the choice understanding of the king to a higher knowledge of the divine testimonies. Upon his urging me to make haste and write it quickly, I said to him, “Are you willing that I should write that quotation on some separate leaf? Perhaps we shall find one or more other such which will please you; and if that should happen, we shall be glad that we have kept this by itself.”  “Your plan is good,” said he; so I gladly made haste to get ready a pamphlet of four leaves, at the head of which I wrote what he had bidden me; and that same day I wrote in it, at his request, and as I had predicted, no less than three other quotations which pleased him. From that time we daily talked together, and investigated the same subject by the help of other quotations which we found and which pleased him, so that the pamphlet gradually became full, and deservedly so, for it is written, “The righteous man builds upon a moderate foundation, and by degrees passes to greater things.”  Thus, like a most productive bee, flying far and wide, and scrutinizing the fenlands, he eagerly and unceasingly collected various flowers of Holy Scripture, with which he copiously filled the cells of his heart.
When that first quotation had been copied, he was immediately eager to read and to translate into the Saxon language, and then to teach many others …
Vita Alfredi §§87–89

In a preface to his translation into English of Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care) by Pope Gregory I (590–604), Alfred addresses his bishops, to each of whom he is sending a copy for placement in their church:

… it has very often come to my mind what wise men there were formerly throughout the English people, both in sacred and in secular orders; and how there were happy times then throughout England; and how the kings who had rule over the people in those days were obedient to God and his messengers, and both maintained their peace and their morality and their authority at home, and also enlarged their territory abroad; and how they prospered both in warfare and in wisdom; and also how zealous the sacred orders were both about teaching and about learning and all the services which they had to perform for God; and how men from abroad came here to this land in search of knowledge and instruction, and how we should now have to get them from abroad, if we were to have them. So complete was its decay among the English people that there were very few this side of the Humber who could comprehend their services in English, or even translate a letter from Latin into English; and I imagine that there were not many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them that I cannot even remember a single one south of the Thames when I succeeded to the kingdom. Thanks be to Almighty God that now we have any supply of teachers…
I also remembered how, before it was all ravaged and burnt, I had seen how the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books, and there was also a great multitude of God’s servants – they had very little benefit from those books, because they could not understand anything of them, since they were not written in their own language… then I wondered greatly at those good wise men who formerly existed throughout the English people and had fully studied all those books, that they did not wish to translate any part of them into their own language. But then I immediately answered myself and said: “They did not imagine that men should ever become so careless and learning so decayed; they refrained from it by intention, and hoped that there would be the greater knowledge in this land the more languages we knew.”
Then I remembered how the law was first found in the Hebrew language, and afterwards, when the Greeks learned it, they translated it all into their own language, and all other books as well. And afterwards in the same way the Romans, when they had learned them, they translated them all into their own language through learned interpreters. And all other Christian nations also translated some part of them into their own language. Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we also should translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know, into the language that we can all understand, and also arrange it, as with God’s help we very easily can if we have peace, so that all the youth of free men now among the English people, who have the means to be able to devote themselves to it, may be set to study for as long as they are of no other use, until the time they are able to read English writing well; afterwards one may teach further in the Latin language those whom one wishes to teach further and wishes to promote to holy orders.
Then when I remembered how the knowledge of Latin had previously decayed throughout the English people, and yet many could read English writing, I began, amidst other various and manifold cares of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which is called Pastoralis in Latin and ‘Shepherd’s Book’ in English, sometimes word for word, sometimes in a paraphrase, as I learned it from my archbishop Plegmund, and my bishop Asser, and my priest Grimbald and my priest John. When I had learned it, I translated it into English as I understood it and as I could interpret it most intelligibly; and I will send one to every bishopric in my kingdom, and in each there will be an æstel worth fifty mancuses [see below]. And in the name of God I command that no one remove the æstel from the book, nor the book from the church; it is uncertain how long there may be such learned bishops as now, thanks be to God, there are almost everywhere; therefore I desire that they should always lie at that place, unless the bishop wants to have it with him, or it be anywhere on loan, or anyone be copying it.

Alfred issued a law-code (quite when is uncertain, but round about 890 seems reasonable), which he introduces:

Now I, King Alfred, have collected these laws, and have given orders for copies to be made of many of those which our predecessors observed and which I myself approved of. But many of those I did not approve of I have annulled, by the advice of my witan, while [in other cases] I have ordered changes to be introduced. For I have not dared to presume to set down in writing many of my own, for I cannot tell what will meet with the approval of our successors. But those which were the most just of the laws I found – whether they dated from the time of Ine my kinsman, or of Offa, king of the Mercians,[*] or of Æthelberht [of Kent], who was the first [king] to be baptised in England – these I have collected while rejecting the others.

The concluding passage of Asser’s biography of Alfred, apparently written in 893, reads:

… the king was a most acute investigator in judicial matters, as he was in all other things. He carefully investigated almost all the judgments which were given in his absence, throughout all his dominion, to see whether they were just or unjust. If he perceived there was iniquity in those judgments, he would, of his own accord, mildly ask those judges, either in his own person or through others who were in trust with him, why they had judged so unjustly, whether through ignorance or malevolence – that is, whether for the love or fear of one party, the hatred of the other, or even out of greed for someone’s money. At length, if those judges acknowledged they had given such judgment because they knew no better in those cases, he discreetly and moderately reproved their inexperience and folly in such terms as these: “I am greatly astonished at your insolence, that whereas, by God’s favour and mine, you have taken upon you the rank and office of the wise, you have neglected the studies and labours of the wise. Either, therefore, at once give up the administration of the earthly powers which you possess, or endeavour more zealously to study the lessons of wisdom. Such are my commands.”  At these words the ealdormen and reeves would be filled with terror at being thus severely corrected, and would endeavour to turn with all their might to the study of justice, so that, wonderful to say, almost all his ealdormen, reeves, and thegns,[*] though illiterate from childhood, gave themselves up to the study of letters, choosing rather to acquire laboriously an unfamiliar discipline than to resign their functions. But if any one, from old age or the sluggishness of an untrained mind, was unable to make progress in literary studies, he would order his son, if he had one, or one of his kinsmen, or, if he had no one else, his own freedman or slave, whom he had long before advanced to the office of reading, to read Saxon books before him, day and night, whenever he had any leisure. And then they would lament with deep sighs from their inmost souls that in their youth they had never attended to such studies. They counted happy the youth of the present day, who could have the good fortune to be trained in the liberal arts, while they considered themselves wretched in that they had neither learnt in their youth, nor could they learn in their old age, although they greatly desired it. I have explained this concern of the old and the young for learning letters as a means of characterizing the aforesaid king.
Vita Alfredi §106

Alfred’s Illness

Alfred’s biographer, Asser, makes a number of brief references to the king’s poor health:

… when he was more advanced in years, he was continually occupied, not to say harassed, day and night, by so many diseases unknown to all the physicians of this island … (§25)
… the king, during the wars and frequent trammels of this present life, the invasions of the pagans, and his own daily infirmities of body, continued to direct the government of the kingdom … (§76)
… from the twentieth year of his age to the present year, which is his forty-fifth, he has been constantly afflicted with most severe attacks of an unknown disease, so that there is not a single hour in which he is not either suffering from that malady, or nigh to despair by reason of the gloom which is occasioned by his fear of it. (§91)
… he promised to render to God half of his mental and bodily service, in so far as his infirmity and ability and means would allow … (§103)
… in so far as his ability and means, and of course his infirmity, would allow. (§105)

In §74 Asser provides a full report:

While his nuptials were being honourably celebrated in Mercia, among innumerable multitudes of both sexes, —
— and after long feasts by day and by night, he was suddenly seized, in the presence of all the people, by instant and overwhelming pain, unknown to any physician. No one there knew, nor even those who daily see him up to the present time – and this, sad to say, is the worst of all, that it should have continued uninterruptedly through the revolutions of so many years, from the twentieth to the fortieth year of his life and more – whence such a malady arose. Many thought that it was occasioned by the favour and fascination of the people who surrounded him;[*] others, by some spite of the devil, who is ever jealous of good men; others, from an unusual kind of fever; while still others thought it was the piles [ficus], which species of severe disease he had had from his childhood.
On a certain occasion it had come to pass by the divine will that when he had gone to Cornwall on a hunting expedition, and had made a detour to pray in a certain church in which rests St Gueriir (and now also St Neot reposes there),[*] he had of his own accord prostrated himself for a long time in silent prayer – since from childhood he had been a frequent visitor of holy places for prayer and the giving of alms – and there he besought the mercy of the Lord that, in his boundless clemency, Almighty God would exchange the torments of the malady which then afflicted him for some other lighter disease, provided that such disease should not show itself outwardly in his body, lest he should be useless and despised – for he had great dread of leprosy or blindness, or any such complaint as instantly makes men useless and despised at its coming. When he had finished his praying, he proceeded on his journey, and not long after felt within himself that he had been divinely healed, according to his request, of that disorder, and that it was entirely eradicated, although he had obtained even this complaint in the first flower of his youth by his devout and frequent prayers and supplications to God.
For if I may be allowed to speak concisely, though in a somewhat inverted order, of his zealous piety to God – in the first flowering of his youth, before he married his wife, he wished to establish his mind in God’s commandments, for he perceived that he could not abstain from carnal desires; and because he saw that he would incur the anger of God if he did anything contrary to His will, he very often used to rise secretly in the early hours of the morning, at cockcrow, and go to pray in churches and at the relics of the saints. There he would prostrate himself for a long time, and pray that Almighty God in His mercy would strengthen his mind still more in the love of His service, turning it fully to Himself by some infirmity such as he might bear, but not such as would render him contemptible and useless in worldly affairs. Now when he had often prayed with much devotion to this effect, after an interval of some time he incurred as a gift from God the before-named disease of the piles, which he bore long and painfully for many years, even despairing of life, until he entirely got rid of it by prayer.
But, sad to say, though it had been removed, a worse one seized him, as I have said, at his marriage, and this incessantly tormented him, day and night, from the twentieth to the 45th year of his life. But if ever, by God’s mercy, he was relieved from this infirmity for a single day or night, or even for the space of one hour, yet the fear and dread of that terrible pain never left him, but rendered him almost useless, as he thought, in divine and human affairs.

Asser makes his story confusing by departing from proper chronological order. In a nutshell: Alfred, in his youth, prayed for an affliction that would enable him to suppress his sexual desires,[*] but would not impair his ability to carry out his duties – he contracted piles. Later, at the shrine of St Gueriir in Cornwall, he asked God to replace this affliction, piles, with something less severe. His piles were cured, but at his marriage feast a new, unidentified, affliction, more severe than piles, first manifested itself. Thereafter, Alfred was subject to intermittent bouts of this painful illness. A contemporary medical handbook, known as Bald’s Leechbook, contains remedies sent to Alfred by Elias III, patriarch of Jerusalem (c.879–907), for the treatment of constipation, pain in the spleen, diarrhoea, “inward tenderness” and “all strange griefs”.[*] In a paper entitled ‘Alfred the Great: a diagnosis’, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Vol. 84, May 1991 (freely available online), G. Craig concluded that: “The evidence available points to inflammatory bowel disease with a particular inclination towards Crohn’s disease.”

The shaded area indicates the approximate extent of Danish settlement in England. There were three main zones:
  • The Kingdom of York in Northumbria. (Place-name evidence and later history indicates that this, more or less, equated to the traditional county of Yorkshire.)
  • The Kingdom of East Anglia.
  • Danish Mercia, which was apparently divided into individual earldoms, each based on a fortified site (burh).[Map] All of these burhs (boroughs) bar one, Stamford, subsequently became county-towns.

The Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum

[Prologue] This is the peace that King Alfred and King Guthrum, and the witan of all the English race, and all the people that are in East Anglia, have all ordained and with oaths confirmed, for themselves and for their descendants, as well for born as for unborn, who reck of God’s mercy or of ours.
[§1] Concerning our land boundaries:[Map] Up on the Thames, and then up on the Lea, and along the Lea unto its source, then straight to Bedford, then up on the Ouse unto Watling Street.[Map]
[§2] Then is this: If a man be slain, we estimate all equally dear, English and Danish, at 8 half-marks of pure gold; except the ceorl who resides on rented land and their [the Danes’] freedmen; they also are equally dear, either at 200 shillings.[*]
[§3] And if a king’s thegn be accused of man-slaying, if he dare to clear himself, let him do that with [the oaths of] 12 king’s thegns. If any one accuse that man who is of less degree than the king’s thegn, let him clear himself with 11 of his equals and with one king’s thegn. And so in every suit which may be for more than 4 mancuses. And if he dare not [clear himself], let him pay for it threefold, as it may be valued.
[§4] And that every man know his warrantor for [the purchase of] men [i.e. slaves], and for horses, and for oxen.
[§5] And we all ordained on that day that the oaths were sworn, that neither slave nor freeman might go to the army [i.e. into Danish territory] without leave, no more than any of them to us. But if it happen that from necessity any of them will have traffic with us or we with them, with cattle and with goods, that is to be allowed in this wise: that hostages be given in pledge of peace, and as evidence whereby it may be known that the party has a clean back [i.e. that no fraud is intended].
The treaty, written in Old English, survives in two versions (one slightly shorter than the other) in a manuscript of around 1100 (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 383). The longer version also features, in Latin, in a compilation known as Quadripartitus.
Witan: The king’s advisory council, composed of important secular and ecclesiastical personages.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that Beorhtwulf, ealdorman of Essex, died in an epidemic during the period 893–6.
A ‘mark’ was a Scandinavian measure of weight, comprising eight ‘ores’. Since an ore roughly equates to an ounce, “8 half-marks” is approximately thirty-two ounces.
By this time, the standard Anglo-Saxon unit of coinage was the silver penny (see Shillings and Pence), and the shilling was not a coin, but was a measure of value. Apparently, five of Alfred’s silver pennies were equivalent to a shilling. In the law-code of Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan, a sheep is valued at a shilling.
Ceorl (churl) – a free Anglo-Saxon peasant.
A thegn (thane) is a freeman in the service (with an emphasis on military service) of another of higher rank, in return for grants of land. The status of a thegn was dependent on the rank of the lord he served, hence a “king’s thegn” was at the top of the ladder.
It seems that the mancus was a unit of weight applying to gold, but it could also be a name used for a gold coin. Since the late-7th century, however, the production of English coins in gold had been, as indicated by the dearth of surviving examples, a very rare event. The standard unit of coinage in Alfred’s day was the silver penny (see Shillings and Pence). Ælfric ‘the Grammarian’ (c.955–c.1010) says that thirty pennies were worth a mancus. In the law-code of Alfred’s grandson, Athelstan (r.924–939), an ox is valued at one mancus.
See Alfred’s Illness.
Asser begins his biography of Alfred: “In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 849, Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, was born at the royal vill called Wantage, in the district called Berkshire (which district receives its name from Berroc Wood, where the box-tree grows very abundantly).”  20th century boundary changes have ‘moved’ Wantage from Berkshire into Oxfordshire.
Alfred became king in 871 (“after Easter”). In the West Saxon king-list and genealogy of Alfred that serves as a preface to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript A, Alfred is said to have been 23 years old when he became king – actually, the Chronicle expresses years in terms of winters: “then were past 23 winters of his age” – by which token Alfred was born in 848.
Asser is in the habit of equating the AD years he takes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with Alfred’s age. However, after the equation of the year 869 with Alfred’s 21st year (§31), which is consistent with Alfred having been born in 849, the equation is incorrect. The year 871 is said (§35) to be “the 22nd of King Alfred’s life” – it should be 23rd.
Writing in Latin, Asser does not use Anglo-Saxon titles. He uses the Latin comites, interpreted as ‘ealdormen’; praepositi, interpreted as ‘reeves’; and ministri interpreted as ‘thegns’.
Offa’s law-code has not survived.
The whereabouts of the Gaini is unknown. The “noble Mercian lady” that Alfred married was, in fact, called Ealhswith (oddly, Asser doesn’t name her). She died on 5th December 902, and, in the so-called ‘Metrical Calendar of Hampson’ (originating in the reign of Alfred and Ealhswith’s son, Edward) she is commemorated as: “the true and beloved lady of the English”.
This curious phrase is explained: “Some thought it was ‘fascination’, that is, the evil eye, due to the applause of the multitude”, by Charles Plummer in The Life and Times of Alfred the Great (1902; pp.25–6).
In Alfred the Great (1983; p.254 n.140), Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest that the word ‘favour’ is the result of scribal error, and interpret the text’s favore et fascinatione as “spells and witchcraft”.
St Gueriir is otherwise unknown.
Assuming the highlighted phrase was written by Asser in 893, then it is the earliest reference to St Neot.  W.H. Stevenson, in his edition of Asser (1904), considered the phrase to be a later interpolation – made by the scribe of the manuscript that was burnt in 1731 (p.xlix, p.cii).  However, in a note to their translation (Alfred the Great, 1983), Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge comment (pp.254–5 n.142): “but it is not impossible that Asser himself was responsible for the remark.”
St Neot’s remains (except one arm apparently) may have already been taken to a monastery at Eynesbury in Huntingdonshire – the location was subsequently called St Neots – by the time the burnt manuscript was written, c.1000. The monastery was founded round-about 980, and St Neots remains are reported to be at Eynesbury in a list of saints’ resting-places, in Old English, completed between 1013 and 1031, at which latter date it was copied into the Liber Vitae (Book of Life) of the New Minster, Winchester (British Library MS Stowe 944).
Bald’s Leechbook survives in a single, 10th century, manuscript (British Library MS Royal 12 D xvii). In fact, the beginning of the chapter (II, 64) concerning the remedies sent to Alfred is missing, but what it contained is known from the book’s ‘Contents’ section.
In the prayer with which he concludes his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Alfred asks God to: “strengthen me against the temptations of the devil; and remove from me impure lust, and all unrighteousness; and defend me against mine enemies visible and invisible; and teach me to do thy will; that I may inwardly love thee before all things, with pure mind, and with pure body”.
Asser apparently wrote his ‘Life’ of Alfred in 893: “the present year, which is his forty-fifth” (§91). The highlighted phrase, though, refers to Alfred’s death (899). W.H. Stevenson, in his edition of Asser (1904), considered that it was added, as an update, by the scribe of the manuscript that was burnt in 1731 (p.xlix). However, in a note to their translation (Alfred the Great, 1983), Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge argue that Asser is expressing his opinion that Alfred will continue to feel the same until his death (p.240 n.52).
Overlay on Above Map