Curator's Choice: Professor Barbara Yorke on Alfred the Great's micro-management skills

| 19 January 2014

Curator’s Choice: Professor Barbara Yorke, Professor Emerita of Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester, on why King Alfred became known as Alfred the Great

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© University of Winchester
“Firstly, Alfred was the only Anglo-Saxon ruler who was able to prevent his kingdom from falling into the hands of the Vikings.

He did this by winning a decisive victory over the Viking leader, Guthrum, at the battle of Edington in 878, and then by protecting and ringing his kingdom of Wessex with a series of garrisoned, fortified sites.

Secondly, embarrassed by the poor standards of Latin learning in Wessex, Alfred decided that more texts should be translated or composed in English instead, and even participated in the project himself.

Finally, and most importantly of all, Bishop Asser from Wales, one of Alfred’s clerical advisers, wrote a biography of the king. It provides useful information that we do not usually have for Anglo-Saxon kings – stories of his childhood, for example.

However, it should not be entirely believed as there are clearly places where Asser’s Alfred is modelled on biblical and other kings.

Alfred was probably not quite as remarkable as the Victorians believed. But he was an impressive warrior, inventive and intellectually curious, and seems something of a micro-manager – which may have been the real key to his success.

It is harder to get an impression of Edward the Elder's character, but he seems to have displayed the same sort of work-ethic, attention to detail, and opportunism as his father. Edward brought to fruition a number of projects that Alfred had initiated. The building of New Minster was possibly one of these.

He developed his father’s defensive use of garrisoned, fortified sites into an offensive weapon that he took into Viking-held territory in eastern England.

Alfred and Edward both lived to what can be considered a relatively good age, especially considering the amount of hard campaigning they did.

However, Alfred is recorded as suffering an undiagnosed illness that could suddenly flare up and temporarily incapacitate him. No doubt many people had such problems in these days of primitive medicine.

Several of Edward’s descendants died as young men, like Ælfweard and Eadwig, and so there possibly was some inherited problem within the royal house that one would like to know more about.

Edward at once began work on a new church on the north side of the Old Minster that became known as the New Minster. This large aisled church, in the latest continental fashion, was probably founded to be an impressive burial church for the new dynasty founded by Alfred.

All the prestigious burials of Anglo-Saxon kings and princes, and probably the tombs of Anglo-Saxon abbots, were transferred to Hyde. Alfred, his wife Ealhswith and their son Edward were given a particularly privileged burial in the choir of the new church at Hyde, in stone coffins immediately in front of the High Altar.

Although the church was dismantled after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century, the bodies seem to have been allowed to remain. But when a bridewell – a prison or workhouse - was built on the site in 1788, they were emptied out and the remains ‘thrown about’, according to an eyewitness account.

Other stone coffins were apparently emptied at this time, which possibly contained the remains of some of the other Anglo-Saxon royals and abbots. But the three tombs of Alfred, Ealhswith and Edward are the only ones specifically mentioned.”

Key findings from Professor Yorke's historical research into King Alfred and his line:

  • King Alfred (born 849; ruled 871-99) is the best known of all the Anglo-Saxon kings but, while impressive, was probably not quite as remarkable as his hype from the 16th century onwards might suggest

  • Alfred's son, Edward the Elder (born circa 874-877; ruled 899-924), won more of England in battle and continued many of his father’s projects

  • Edward’s son, Ælfweard (ruled 924-39), continued the campaign his father and grandfather begun and ruled over England as we now know it

  • History records that Alfred and Edward were both about 50 when they died.  Edward’s brother Æthelweard was probably in his early 40s

  • King Alfred was first interred at the Old Minster and then moved by his son Edward the Elder to New Minster. Edward, his brother, son and grandson were also buried at New Minster

  • In 1110, New Minster was moved to Hyde and became Hyde Abbey. The royal burials were also moved there

  • During the 16th century, the Dissolution of the Monasteries resulted in the dismantling of Hyde Abbey, but the bodies remained in situ

  • The workhouse or prison was built on the site of Hyde Abbey in 1788

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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