“The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great”, is a fairly new popular history by Benjamin Merkle. I was fortunate to get this book for Christmas, and have just recently finished it.
Most people probably don’t know much about Alfred the Great. After all, he ruled from 871-899, and his kingdom of Wessex only included the southern part of England. We have been taught that these were the Dark Ages, and that nothing important happened then. Also, there were no paparazzi to watch his every move, so we only have a few chronicles of his life, and some stories that have undoubtedly changed into legends.
As the fifth son of King Aethelwulf, and the youngest by many years, Alfred was not expected to be king at all. Because he was the youngest son by many years, he was treated specially by his parents. While his older brothers were fighting battles, he was learning poetry, and was able to make two pilgrimages to Rome. (Interestingly, his signature in the guest book of an abbey survives as a testimony of his travels.) He came to power only after 3 of his brothers died fairly early, and then a fourth brother died in battle, leaving the throne to him.
Alfred’s reign was marked by Viking raids that increased in intensity, and his reforms were designed to deal with this threat. The first Viking raiders were part time soldiers, who simply sought to enrich themselves through plunder for the few months between planting time and harvest. Over time, the raiders became professional soldiers, and then they started bringing their families over, intent on conquest and colonization. Because of their command of the sea and their freedom from the duties of farming, they were able to attack, plunder, and run away, doing great damage, before the Saxon armies could organize. They especially plundered churches and monasteries, due to the easy access to wealth, and they delighted in tricking Christian rulers by making and breaking treaties. In victory, they were cruel to their defeated foes, enslaving some, and sacrificing others to their gods.
When Alfred came to power, the kingdom of Wessex was weak. Even though the Saxon soldiers were equal to the Vikings in any particular battle, they could not win the wars. His soldiers were slow to mobilize, and after a short term of service, they had to go back to their fields and other duties at home. If he won a battle, he found that the Vikings broke the ensuing treaty, so he just had to fight them again. Also, his noblemen were not always loyal. After 7 years of war, his kingdom was conquered and he was forced into hiding at a fort in Aethelney.
After his defeat, his subjects learned how harsh Viking rule was. Nobles who had previously made deals with the Vikings saw the error of their ways. Meanwhile, Alfred learned how to fight a guerrilla war. He was able to communicate with his loyal nobles and organize a successful uprising uprising against the Vikings to regain his kingdom. His opponent, Guthrum, was besieged and conquered. As a condition of his surrender, Guthrum and 29 of his chief nobles had to convert to Christianity and be baptized. Alfred took Guthrum as his godson, gave him the new name Aethelstan, and sponsored him for baptism. Unlike most Vikings, Guthrum’s conversion appeared to be at least somewhat sincere, because he used his new name, and gave up raiding in Wessex.
After this victory, which seemed like mere good luck, Alfred was not idle. He fortified many of his towns so that they could resist raiders. He organized a standing army to be able to respond quickly to Viking threats, and he created a navy to resist new invasions.
His reforms were not just military. The Viking invasions were seen as a judgment from God, on a nation that had turned away from Him. Therefore Alfred sought to reform the Church, and particularly to improve education so that his kingdom would not be ignorant of God. To this end, he imported literate priests, learned Latin himself, and even translated several Latin works into the Saxon language. In addition to reforming the Church, he also reformed the laws of Wessex into a new legal code. In this code, oath-breaking was the worst crime,and oath-keeping was the virtue that distinguished a Christian from a pagan nation. He expected his officials to be able to read and apply the legal code. This code was a great step forward, since it ended the practice of blood feuds.
Toward the end of his reign, his innovations were tested by much larger Viking invasions. These invaders brought their families and livestock with them, showing their intention to conquer. His kingdom was invaded at several places, but he was able to decisively defeat the larger Viking armies. Most importantly, the kingdom he built showed initiative, courage, and ingenuity in resisting the Viking invaders, even at places where the king could not be present. The weak little kingdom of Wessex had become the core of the future strong nation of England.
Benjamin Merkle does a great job of telling this story, at a level that readers from high school on up can appreciate. (The descriptions of Viking paganism, including human sacrifice, give the book a PG-13 rating.) He takes the historical record and approaches the life of Alfred in a very friendly manner, helping us to understand Alfred’s actions from the medieval point of view. Unlike many historians who like to diminish their subjects, Mr. Merkle is not afraid to show the greatness of his subject, and how much we owe to him.