So, the Grand Final of Rex Factor is underway and there are three very deserving finalists competing to be crowned the Rex Factor champion…but who do you vote for? How do you decide between Alfred the Great, Henry II and Elizabeth I? Some people will have their favourites but for others the decision may be more difficult. You have until 31 July to cast your vote, so if you don’t yet know you want to win then read on to find out why Alfred the Great deserves your vote.
Alfred was born in around 849, a time when there was no England but rather a series of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms such as Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex (the south and south-west of England, where Alfred would become king). When Alfred came to the throne in 871, Wessex was the only independent kingdom left, the others all having been conquered by the mighty Vikings. Alfred himself was forced into exile in the marshes of Athelney in 878 having failed to prepare for a Viking attack following a temporary peace, giving rise to the legend of Alfred being chastised for burning the cakes of a peasant woman (a metaphor for taking his eye off the kingdom). However, while previous kings went abroad or were blood-eagled (a rather gruesome form of Viking execution), Alfred gathered his forces and emerged to fight the Battle of Edington. Had he lost, Anglo-Saxon England would have ended and the future English state (and language) never have come to pass. Thankfully, Alfred was victorious and then set about winning the peace with an innovative new series of defensive towns (burhs) and a nationwide programme of education for a land where learning was in serious decline. When he died in 899, he had started the process of creating a united England that his successors would complete over the next twenty years.
Most of Alfred’s life was spent at war with the Vikings – pretty substantial as nemeses go! He first came to prominence in the Battle of Ashdown, fighting with such ferocity that he was dubbed “The Wild Boar of Ashdown”, taking on two Viking divisions with just one Saxon force (until his brother, then king, had finished praying!). Alfred’s most significant victory as at Eddington, emerging from the marshes and charging down the hill towards the Viking army of his great rival, Guthrum. Given what was at stake (the entire future of a nation of which Alfred could only dream) this is arguably one of the most significant battles in English history. What’s more, Alfred did something really innovative with his burhs – fortified market towns, no more than 20 miles (one day’s march) apart, meaning that the Vikings could no longer undertake quick raids without facing a) strong opposition and then b) strong reinforcements in no more than a day. Initially key for defence, these burhs would be key to the expansion through which Alfred’s successors would unify England.
Alfred had many virtues but his causing scandal is not one of them. Alfred was a very pious character (cue sighs for the tabloid headline writers!) and apparently had such a hang-up about sexual indiscretion that he prayed for divine intervention to cause him illness that would cure him of any desires in that field! However, it is thought that as a younger man Alfred may have been rather more eager in the bedroom and believed an illness which afflicted him throughout his life (possibly Chrohn’s Disease) was a punishment for his carnal sins. Though it may have been lost to history, surely you can’t have that much of a hang-up about something without a few skeletons/scantily-clad nuns in the cupboard…
Perhaps more than any other English monarch, Alfred seems to have had a genuine desire to rule for the good of his people. His burhs not only functioned as military forts but also market towns, which had been largely abandoned since the departure of the Romans three centuries earlier. Most notably, in 886 Alfred re-founded the city of London. However, Alfred’s main preoccupation was education. Learning had declined to such an extent that even some monks in Canterbury had limited levels of literacy, so, convinced this was key to England’s recovery, Alfred encouraged scholars from across Britain and Europe to come to his court and demanded that all his officials be literate. He also became something of a philosopher king, learning Latin in his later years so that he could translate great classical and religious works into English, which he would then distribute to his ministers and clerics. The prefaces were largely Alfred’s own views, ranging from issues of kingship and the importance of education to more poignant matters such as the value of friendship.
Alfred was only about 50 years old when he died in 899 but for a Saxon this was a decent age. He was king from 871 to 899, a reign of 28.5 years which again was impressive for the time given his ill health and the potential to have his head cut off by beserker Vikings! Overall, Alfred is the 14th longest ruling monarch in English history.
Alfred had 5 surviving children, of whom one (Edward the Elder) would succeed him as king, a daughter (Aethelflaed) who was virtual ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia and Aelfryth, who married the Count of Flanders and was an ancestor of the wife of William the Conqueror (Matilda of Flanders), thus ensuring that William’s children were descended from Alfred.
Alfred’s is one of the most incredible stories of all the English monarchs, perhaps the closest to a real-life King Arthur (aside from Edward III’s deliberate homage) in terms of his victories to save the nation and the good rule to see it flourish. His narrow escape into the marshlands followed by the crucial victory at Eddington has something of a Dunkirk/D-Day air to it (and indeed was invoked by the press in 1940) while his innovation in learning and urban planning is arguably his greater legacy. As the only monarch in British history to be labelled “the Great” and a virtual founding father of the English state, Alfred is surely a strong contender for the Rex Factor crown.
Devil’s Advocate – Why you should NOT vote for Alfred
Of course, no one is perfect, and it is no accident if Alfred seems that way because (again with a future nod to Churchill) he seems to have kept one eye on ensuring his reputation through the ages. Much of what we know about Alfred (which is far more than almost any other Saxon ruler) is thanks to works either written by Alfred (his translations) or commissioned by him, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a contemporary biography written by a Welsh monk, Asser. While the main events (the victory at Edington, refounding London, the translations) are not in doubt, it is possible that Asser and co have done their bit to make Alfred a perfect, saintly ruler rather than a more plausibly pragmatic man. It is probably for this reason that we have no recorded scandal for Alfred (though ironically this might have made him more sympathetic to modern eyes!) It must also be acknowledged that Alfred’s work was not complete – he had a vision for a united Anglo-Saxon England, but on his death he ruled only half of the country, with the eastern and northern parts of the country effectively ruled by the Vikings (the Danelaw). His son, Edward, had to fight a hard campaign to succeed him as king and it was his grandson, Athelstan, who finished the job and ruled the whole of England.
However, Alfred’s achievements are still remarkable regardless of some selective chronicling by Asser or the future success of Athelstan. As Ali remarked in a later podcast episode, it is always good for a country when an old man plants an acorn that he will never live to see grow, and England can be grateful that Alfred endured hardships that would allow a future and prosperity that Alfred himself would never enjoy.